Tired & Stressed: Is Your ‘New Normal’ Making You Sick?


To change any behavior, we first have to be aware of it. Sounds simple, right? But as humans, we have the ability to acclimate, constantly creating a “new normal” which challenges our ability to recognize when our status quo has changed.

“When we acclimate, we adjust to a new status quo,” says Eric Bacigal, director of Employee Health, Safety and Wellness at Henry Ford Health. “It’s how we’re wired. Adjustments can happen so gradually we fail to recognize how our lives and bodies have changed and the impact it’s having on us.”

Three prime examples of human acclimatization are sleep, stress and weight. Over time, we adjust to getting less sleep, having more stress, and gaining extra pounds. We compensate by drinking more caffeine, operating at a heightened stress level, and buying larger clothes.

Bacigal refers to the sleep-stress-weight combination as the “three-legged stool,” because compromising one “leg” of the stool tips our balance and affects the other two “legs.”

The negative effects of ignoring symptoms
“Stress, weight and sleep loss can cause real physical symptoms. This is our body’s way of telling us to change, and can help us be more aware,” says Bacigal.

  • Stress is a major trigger of cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive symptoms. Heart palpitations, tightness in the chest, high blood pressure, asthma attacks, and stomach aches are common.
  • Sleep loss can cause headaches, fatigue, memory and concentration problems, depression, and of course, sleepiness.
  • Carrying extra weight also can also make us feel fatigued, easily tired, out of breath, cause back and joint pain and increased sweating.

Never dismiss a physical symptom, but if you (or your doctor) can’t find a cause, consider that one or more legs of your three-legged stool may be off.

Kathy Oswald, who is senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Henry Ford, discovered this first hand. For years, she didn’t realize how poorly she was sleeping.

“My husband was a huge snorer, and kept me up all the time. I would wake up in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, then dragged out of bed every morning and wore out as the day went on,” Oswald remembers.

After he suffered a heart attack in October 2015, a sleep study uncovered sleep apnea and a CPAP machine solved his snoring and waking.

“The best part for me is that now I sleep all night. It makes a huge difference,” says Oswald. “We wake up refreshed, and are back to having the energy we used to have. I get up, get going, can take a walk in the morning, and get more done during the day. I stay up later in the evening and I’m still getting more, higher quality sleep. I have more time and I feel better. I had no idea how bad it was until I started sleeping better.”

Similar to operating on a sleep deficit, Bacigal says many people are operating at a heightened stress level. “When our stress level rises, we adjust. Then it happens again, and we continue to operate but are ever closer to that breaking point. It doesn’t take much to push us right into an overstressed or sub-optimal stress state.”

Bacigal gives an example from his own life, when one morning he was running late and had to change his shirt, tie, and vest multiple times. He became so irritated and angry, he ripped the buttons right off his shirt in true “Incredible Hulk” style.

“Had I been in a better place to begin with, I wouldn’t have reacted that way,” he admits. “When I looked at what was really going on, I realized my overall stress level was so high, I was operating close to that breaking point. It was my cue to step back and work on putting some things in place to help bring my baseline stress level down so I’d be able to deal with a bad morning without ripping open any more shirts.”

Learning to find a healthy balance
Lowering stress, sleeping more and maintaining a healthy weight are actually coping mechanisms that help us manage better when life gets rough.

“How can we take on the challenges of the day when we have an ulcer, are carrying 20 extra pounds, our energy level is low and we just want to sleep?” points out Bacigal.

Other strategies are to get active to burn off stress and calories, and take some time for yourself to identify what’s causing your stress, sleep loss, or weight gain. Look at changes you can make to your diet and sleep habits, see if you can take a day or two off work to recharge and unplug, and identify a stressor you can eliminate.

“Without awareness, you won’t make changes,” says Bacigal. “When you see it – don’t ignore it. Allow yourself those ‘light bulb’ moments to recognize you can change.”

Partnering with your primary care doctor to discuss any symptoms and to identify and implement changes can also be key. Make an appointment or find a doctor today.

Categories: FeelWell