The term ‘residual stress’ is often used to describe a phenomenon in manufacturing that results in a solid material continuing to be affected by stress even once the original cause of stress has been removed. For instance, due to temperature gradients, structural changes or deformations.
This term also serves a useful purpose however in describing something that a lot of us experience.
Have you ever felt a little bit stressed but not quite sure why? Like you’re anxious for no reason, or for a reason you’ve forgotten. This may well be residual stress.
What Is Residual Stress?
When you’re stressed, your body goes through an awful lot. Basically what happens is that you are put into the ‘fight or flight’ response which is characterized by neurotransmitters and hormones like norepinephrine/adrenaline, dopamine, cortisol and others. These all ‘amp you up’ and send blood and oxygen to your muscles and away from your immune system and digestion. Your body starts to use up more energy and you shake and panic.
This process is designed to make us more likely to survive in the case of an attack or a natural disaster. What it’s not designed for is work pressure, angry bosses or financial strain. This is where chronic stress can come in – when you don’t get a break from the ‘stressor’ that is causing you so much unhappiness and thus you remain ‘on’ for too long. As a result you experience adrenal fatigue, you become susceptible to illness and eventually you even start to experience depression.
Say you now shoot your boss in the head, or he mysteriously falls down a lift shaft… surely you should feel better now, right? Well not necessarily – for although your boss is now gone, you will still have the residual stress to deal with and the recovery.
It’s a little like having someone punch you in the leg repeatedly for days. Even once they stop, you’re still going to have a painful bruise for at least a while. When you’ve been chronically stressed for a long time it’s almost like your soul is bruised…
What Causes Residual Stress
Specifically then, what does your body go through once the source of stress is gone but you still feel rotten?
For one, you have the fact that you’ll still be on ‘high alert’. All those stress hormones are still in your system – they can only get flushed out so quickly – and so they should be because there’s always some risk the stressor will come back. Thus you might no longer be stressed about the specific thing that set you off any more but you’re still likely to be a little wired and a little anxious. All of your senses will be slightly heightened and everything will seem a little more intense. You may also face adrenal fatigue (meaning your adrenal glands are worn out from going full pelt) which can lead to exhaustion while your slightly imbalanced neurotransmitters can leave you feeling low and a little depressed.
Likewise, your body has been taking a beating for a while now with so much adrenaline pumping through your body and everything going towards your brain and heart. And while your immune system can get ‘suppressed’ during some kinds of stress, other types of chronic stress can actually enforce it. What this then means is that when your body switches off and you go into ‘rest and digest’ mode finally (the opposite of fight or flight) you often get ill. This is what is sometimes referred to as ‘leisure sickness’. It’s why teachers will tend to get sick in the holidays. A common symptom of leisure sickness and of residual stress is migraine so look out for that.
For all these reasons, residual stress can mean you continue to feel less than 100% even when the cause of your initial anxiety is long behind you.
How to Deal With Residual Stress
So what do you do? How can you handle feeling the ‘come down’ from stress effectively?
The first thing to do is to realize that you aren’t likely to feel better immediately at the end of the deadline so don’t plan anything big to start the next day. Acknowledge residual stress as a problem and plan around it.
Normally this might mean taking some holiday or just going out for drinks to ‘blow off some steam’. Note though that you don’t want to be completely comatose following your stressful work because you might leave yourself prone to leisure sickness.
Better yet: try to avoid getting yourself so badly stressed in the first place. Reprioritize your life if you find yourself feeling this way regularly and ensure you are taking lots of regular breaks so that you never feel the cumulative effects of months’ worth of stress.