Is Your Stress Healthy or Unhealthy?

Ah, stress. It's everywhere. From toxic workplaces to family matters, stress has a way of slithering into every crevice of life.

This doesn't mean all stress is inherently bad, though. A stressful situation can be considered "healthy" if it stimulates motivation and propels you forward. But how do you know when a push in the right direction has slipped into the unhealthy stress zone?

Typically, it will manifest itself in negative ways. "You know stress is unhealthy when your capacity for action begins to diminish," says Lauren E. Miller, M.Ed, CSC, ICF-PCC, an executive coach and stress educator based in Colorado. "[It hinders] your ability to show up as the best version of you, and to handle circumstances in a peaceful, calm and confident manner."

If you're unsure how to recognize this type of stress, keep an eye out for the following five signs. By learning how to identify these common red flags, you'll improve your chances of controlling stress before it controls you.

Poor Focus

When it's time to complete an important task, feeling stressed can jump-start your motivation and concentration. It's a different story, however, if stress disrupts your focus. "When the stress causes you to have fragmented thinking, you know it's unhealthy," Miller explains.

If your focus feels choppy, Miller recommends practicing an easy breathing exercise: "Breathe in deeply to the count of eight, hold it for seven and exhale to the count of eight." Since oxygen is essential for normal brain functions like cognitive ability, deep breathing will fuel your brain with the oxygen it needs.

Muscle Tension

It's normal to experience muscle tension in the face of stress. This is how the body protects itself, according to the American Psychological Association. But if stress has reached a harmful state, the muscles will stay tense even after the stressful event passes.

Sound familiar? Stretch it out, says Jordan Friedman, president of The Stress Coach and a stress management speaker based in New York. "Stretching and movement can zap muscle tension, especially when it's done regularly throughout the day," he explains. This can also help relieve sensations like shoulder and eye strain before they turn into headaches or migraines.

Increased Jumpiness

Stress keeps you on guard and alert. If it's the positive kind, it helps you handle the situation with mental and physical endurance. Yet, if you're unusually on edge, your stress levels might have snowballed into the unhealthy kind.

"Are you quick to startle when you hear a phone ring or muffler pop? This can be a sign that you're holding in a lot of stress and tension," shares Friedman. Take it as a red flag and note that a dose of stress management deserves a spot on your to-do list.

Trouble Sleeping

We all experience the occasional sleepless night, but if tossing and turning has become your new cardio, unhealthy stress could be the culprit.

"Stress is one of the biggest causes of poor sleep," Friedman shares. "So, in addition to reducing your stress, creating an optimal sleep environment is important." The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet with tools like white noise machines or fans.

Low Energy Levels

As stress builds up, it can also zap your energy. Instead of reaching for a third cup of joe, take a tip from Miller and prioritize movement. In her own practice, she encourages clients to move every hour or so. These breaks, which she calls "mini retreats," can involve anything from simply standing up or doing 10 bodyweight squats at your desk.

You can also try shaking therapy, which she mentions in her book, "5 Minutes to Stress Relief". "Stand up, think about something you're holding on to and shake it off. Imagine it's like little beads of water [on your body]," she explains.

While stress is a subjective experience, these signs often develop when it reaches harmful levels. Allow yourself the opportunity to notice, recognize and honor what your body is trying to tell you. From there, you can begin practicing coping strategies while finding opportunities to minimize stress the best you can.