Is stress harming your health? Here’s how to read the warning signs

By Mark Henick

In modern society, there aren’t many hungry tigers or unexpected swimming trips in our daily lives. However, in the world of self-employment, there are many analogous adventures. According to a recent study by Morneau Shepell, up to 72 per cent of entrepreneurs face mental-health issues. This is far greater than the general public, but it’s not particularly surprising why. There’s not likely to be any drastic differences in the brains of entrepreneurs, as though they were a neurologically distinct sub-species. But there is one key difference. They find themselves drowning a lot more. Stress can be good. It can drive people to take healthy risks, but it can also drive them into the ground. The trick is knowing when stress will propel you on to greater things and when, conversely, it’ll harm your health.

One of the earliest signs of unhealthy levels of stress is when it starts to negatively impact performance. 

The classic model of the stress curve shows that performance improves and peaks with the right amount of motivating stress, but when it passes that peak, performance starts to drop exponentially. What was initially motivating becomes demoralizing. What at first gave purpose and drive gives way to overwhelming burden that can feel like too much to carry. It turns out that stress, like work, piles up.

When performance starts to decline, you can often see it in the form of absenteeism, increased errors and less attention to detail, more interpersonal conflict and a greater number of delayed deadlines, callbacks and returned emails. Focus is like a spotlight, and you can only point it at one area at a time. When someone is focused on their overwhelming stress, it’s hard to point that spotlight on anything else.

Often this will lead to more readily apparent physical illness. Chronic stress can be traced as the cause of any number of physical ailments, from increased common colds and flues due to a compromised immune system, to increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Chronic stress can actually negatively impact the brain in such a way that, over time, it can make certain processes slower and hardwire you to more easily feel stressed in the future. Generally, people who are experiencing long-term exposure to chronic stress that is not well managed are less healthy, have more health complaints and die sooner than people who counterbalance this stress with time to unwind.

Another indicator of unhealthy stress can be seen when people fundamentally change their usual approach to challenges. That unwinding is key and is the secret to building resilience. Resilience is not defined by our ability to avoid stress, but rather to bounce back from it. In fact, they may even change their approach to just about everything. Whereas in the past they may have met resistance or challenges with the attitude that they could conquer anything, when suffering under pathological stress, they may approach those same challenges with defeated stance. 

Their usual stance is their baseline, and any significant change from baseline is a a big red flag, and a key warning sign of most mental illnesses.

If any one of these warning signs presents itself in someone you know, start a conversation and help find that person support. We can also build mindful skills into our own lives and practise observing our own individual changes and flags. Most importantly, whether you’re noticing a change in yourself or someone else, know that you’re not alone. In fact, if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably in the majority, and you can choose to not be a silent one. 

Mark Henick is a mental health strategist, advocate, and media commentator. His TEDx talk, Why We Choose Suicide, is one of the most watched in the world. He lives in Toronto.