4 Signs Your Body Is Telling You It's Time to Take a Break

Credit - Illustration by Visbii for Time

If the smoke alarm in your house were beeping frantically, you’d spring into action. If your car alarm started whirring loudly, you’d investigate. And if a tornado warning was issued for your neighborhood, you'd almost certainly take cover.

Yet we’re not so fast, experts agree, to react to the alarm bells ringing in our own body, letting us know we need to slow down. “The problem is, we become conditioned early on to stop listening to our bodies,” says Jennifer King, an assistant professor of applied social sciences and assistant director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. That means we might miss important signs that manifest when we’re navigating prolonged, repetitive, or unpredictable stress—the kind that affects many of us. “A cascade of changes happen in the body when the stress response is activated in a sustained way,” King says. “When the dose is too big, and there’s not a clear beginning or end, that causes wear and tear on the body.”

That’s why it’s so essential to pay close attention to changes in how we relate to others, what we’re experiencing physically, and how we’re coping mentally and emotionally—and to be open to feedback from the people around us. We asked experts to explain what to look and listen for, plus what happens if we ignore what we find instead of addressing it.

You’ll notice emotional changes

If you haven’t taken a break—and need one—you might notice you feel gloomier than usual and are experiencing increased anxiety. “Your mood can absolutely be affected,” says Dr. Gerda Maissel, a physician in New York’s Hudson Valley who works as a patient advocate and helps people navigate the health-care system. Your thoughts might start “circling,” or whirling around on repeat in a loop. And you’ll likely “feel like you can’t remember things, or you can’t find the name for something,” she says.

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Meanwhile, stress can deter you from enjoying activities you once relished. Haven’t opened a book you’d been looking forward to? No longer interested in that half-finished knitting project? Consider it a hint that something is off. People who desperately need a break sometimes also lose the ability to engage in basic self-care like exercise and eating well, Maissel says.

You might feel engulfed, too, by a sense of overwhelm. Maisel has noticed that people with chronic stress are often unable to cope well—with issues big and small. “I call it tipping,” she says. “If you’re like a plank on a seesaw, and you’ve got stuff weighing you down and you're trying to keep everything in balance, eventually a lot of things will slide down with you.” The people she works with get tearful, have outbursts, and can't make simple decisions because they're so overwhelmed.

Your relationships will strain

Have you noticed you’re experiencing new stress in your relationships with various people? Maybe you’re grumpier than usual—and snapping at your colleagues or blasting your horn at that guy who cut you off on the freeway. “You might notice you’re feeling a little more irritable or cranky,” King says. “If you’re finding that you want to isolate a little more, and keep to yourself—if that's something you weren’t already doing—that can be because of stress.” If a friend or family member approaches you about your mood, try not to get defensive or brush off their concern. Often, other people are the first to notice the warning signs.

You might catch a cold

Stress can affect all of the body’s systems, says Ashley Fields, a therapist in Indianapolis who specializes in women’s issues and perinatal mental health. Research suggests it can weaken the immune system, for example, causing you to get sick more frequently. “I have grad students I teach who often tell me that right after they graduate, they get a cold or some type of sickness,” says Fields, who teaches masters-level social work at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “It’s almost like their bodies finally stop running at high alert with classes and work and internships, and need to heal.”

Your stomach and sleep will suffer

You might also experience digestive difficulties—like an upset stomach, constipation, or indigestion—as well as appetite changes that cause you to gain or lose weight. Stress often causes muscle tension, Fields says, triggering headaches, jaw pain, and back and shoulder pain. We don’t always realize how much tension we’re holding in our bodies until we make it a point to intentionally observe what we’re feeling, and where, she adds. Your sleep might be affected, too. Feeling more tired than usual? Or maybe you’re sleeping fine, but you’re exhausted when you climb out of bed. Both are pretty likely cues that you need to devote more time to rest and relaxation, Fields notes.

Long-term effects of not taking a break

When we develop “tunnel vision” and orient our lives around our daily obligations, our body starts “begging us, oftentimes, to slow down,” says Dr. Christopher Thompson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Ignoring those pleas leads to “a lot of our modern health problems.”

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To understand why, consider that when we see a threat, we enter fight-or-flight mode, and our adrenal glands start releasing cortisol and adrenaline. That cortisol causes your body’s tissues to release glucose into your blood, “because you need glucose to get energy to run away or fight,” Thompson says. Meanwhile, your insulin production will decrease and your blood vessels will tighten, which is OK for one short-term event, like if you’re in an emergency situation and need to defend yourself. But when we experience it for weeks, months, or even years without relief, “we don’t recover from those cortisol spikes,” which become the norm. “It’s clearly really hurting our health.”

Research suggests, for example, that chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. Another potential effect: weight gain. Because cortisol can increase blood sugar and impact the body’s insulin level, it can lead to belly fat as well as other weight gain, Thompson says. It can also break down muscle tissue, which lowers your metabolism. “It makes sense that chronically elevated cortisol levels are causing a lot of problems, including obesity, increased weight, hypertension, insulin resistance, and diabetes,” Thompson says. Exactly how long it takes for lingering stress to exact this toll will vary from person to person, he adds: “The problem is how long it takes us to recognize we’re in that period of stress.”

A break doesn’t have to be a vacation

Make it a point to check in with yourself every day about how you’re feeling and what you need, Fields advises. Thirty seconds will suffice; the important thing is to make it part of your routine. “It’s a pulse on how you’re doing,” she says—and you’ll collect information that can help you make meaningful lifestyle changes.

If you realize your body is pushing you toward a break, don’t let the idea create even more stress. You don’t necessarily need to take a week off work, or submit a request for a sabbatical. Claiming just a few minutes of downtime throughout the day can make a difference, Fields says: Shut your phone off for 5 minutes, draw in an adult coloring book, or call someone you love. She likes to do a quick intentional breathing exercise: Breathe in for three to five counts, and then exhale for the same number.

Read More: How to Get Back to Sleep After Waking Up at Night

Maissel likes to take short breaks throughout the day, usually centered around movement: She aims to climb 20 flights of stairs daily. She might step away from her computer, for example, to go upstairs to water a plant, which helps keep stress at bay.

“Instead of saving up for this big dose of calm and relaxation, think about how you can strategically and intentionally pepper breaks throughout your day,” King says. “When you wake up, or you’re heading to work or school, or you’re in transition, what are the things you could be doing that allow your spikes to come back down?”

Whatever you do, she says, it needs to be something you find pleasurable or fun. For King, that means squeezing in one-song dance parties throughout the day. She pops up in her office and starts bouncing and shaking. Taking a brief respite “allows your body to metabolize some of what you’ve been taking in,” she says. “We’re soothing or energizing or offering ourselves whatever we might need to come back down to baseline, and to feel ready for whatever’s coming next.”

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