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Do You Have Stress Overload?

Published: June 5, 2017

James Amirkhan (l) and Seyka Huff

Psychology’s James Amirkhan and his students recently published a new study in the International Journal of Stress Management that takes a closer look at the symptoms of stress overload and how they are often overlooked until it is too late.

Conducted by Amirkhan and Psychology Honors students Isidro Landa and Seyka Huff, both 2014 CSULB graduates, the study involved 440 adults recruited from the general community. The team focused on the stress-related symptoms and behaviors these people exhibited over the course of one week using two waves of surveys.

A number of symptoms and behaviors are said to be indicative of stress, yet there is little empirical evidence to verify what the actual signs of pathogenic stress overload are, explained Amirkhan, who originally joined the university as a full-time lecturer in 1984. The community sample was drawn from the Long Beach Aquarium and the Orange County Courthouse in Westminster in order to capture a wide spectrum of population demographics as well as stress levels. Participants completed the Stress Overload Scale and Symptoms and Behaviors questionnaires at those sites as well as a follow-up survey one week later at home.

“It is not just the demands we face but our feeling that we are not capable of dealing with those demands that makes the difference,” he said. “We experience stress all the time. Most of that stress does not make us sick. What makes us sick is when there are more demands than we think we can handle. It is that feeling of being overwhelmed that brings the panicky feeling. Stress overload is like the straw that broke the camel’s back. At that point, you are not only vulnerable to bacteria and viruses but to mental problems like depression and anxiety. It is the feeling of being overwhelmed that is critical.”

The study derived from the Honors theses of Huff, who investigated the behavioral signs, and Landa, who focused on the somatic signs of stress overload.

“Which of those were most closely associated with stress overload?” Amirkhan asked. “The outcome was that, yes, most of the signs we are told to look for by websites and pamphlets were accurate. However, our research took that conclusion a step further: What type of symptoms were most indicative of stress overload?”

The answer to that is cognitive disruption.

“That can be everything from memory lapses to difficulties focusing,” he explained. “When you spend half an hour listening to someone and can’t remember what they said, that is a good sign something else is going on in your head.

“Stomach disorders and moodiness are other short-term signs of stress overload,” he added. “If you know people who are suddenly irritable, that can be evidence of stress overload. In contrast, respiratory symptoms are delayed signs which may not appear until days after stress overload is reached.”

In identifying the components of stress overload, the research holds implications for treating stress-related disorders.

“One implication for therapists is to get people to say ‘No’ more often, which would diminish the demands component,” said Amirkhan. “We must learn to admit, when asked for more help, that we are at our limit. The other implication is for therapists to empower people, to reduce the vulnerability component. We sometimes need reminders that we are more resilient than we think.”

There were surprises, including certain nervous behaviors were unrelated to stress overload, which caught him.

“Pulling hair or biting a pencil may be strong symptoms of anxiety but not stress,” he said. “There is something about anxiety that elicits these nervous rituals.”

He hopes that readers of this work will learn that stress represents a combination of factors.

“Some people feel challenged rather than overloaded. There is a lot to do but they feel capable of doing it. Look at the soccer moms who seem to do a million things at once,” he said. “On the other hand, there are people without too many demands yet they feel vulnerable. Think of those elderly who may be financially comfortable but nevertheless feel fragile. Such feelings are not pleasant, but according to my research, neither of those types of people will get sick. It is only those who have all the demands and who also feel they cannot manage them who will get sick.”

Amirkhan graduated from Reed College with a bachelor’s degree in 1974, then earned a master’s at Cal State Northridge. He earned his Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA in 1984, minoring in public health.

Amirkhan is continuing his research work in the area of stress overload by examining how it is creating new nightmares for “Dreamers,” the undocumented students currently protected by the DACA Act.

“My goal is to document the stress and illnesses experienced by `Dreamers’ who face political uncertainties. I hope they will participate in an online survey. In the world of stress overload, the Dreamers are experiencing a perfect storm,” he said. “They face increasing demands at the same time they are feeling increasingly vulnerable. The online survey is completely anonymous and we want all students to participate. I understand the reticence of Dreamers about going online but I want them to know we want to help them, not endanger them.” The survey continues into fall 2017.