As recently as the 1980s, canaries were taken into coal mines by miners as an early warning system for toxic gases. The reason for this was that canaries are highly sensitive to such gases and so they become sick (and even die) at lower concentrations than people do. Therefore, the miners would take them down into mines and, if the canaries began to show signs of distress, the miners had time to either get out of the area or to put on breathing apparatus.
Fortunately for canaries, their use in mines was stopped in 1986 when electronic methods of gas detection were developed. However, early warning systems are still often referred to as canaries.
Early warning systems are vital to staying safe, well and heathy and yet when it comes to personal health, people are often unaware of them. Consequently, they carry on regardless and only notice the real dangers when it is too late. This is particularly the case with stress.
There are a number of canaries to warn us of the increasing impact that negative stress is having on us. Being aware of these signs can enable us, like the miners, to get away safely, or at least to ensure that we are protecting ourselves as much as possible from the accumulation of toxic stress.
Here are three common stress canaries:
1. Hobbies and interests lose their appeal to you. This is one that I noticed in myself recently. In my spare time I’m normally found with my camera or my pencils. One day I suddenly realised that I hadn’t used either for weeks, despite having had time. In fact, I’d even gone to an event and felt it almost a chore to get my camera and lenses together to take with me.When it came to drawing, it was as if I’d lost all creativity and inspiration – I just couldn’t think of anything I even felt like drawing. I definitely had a stress canary in distress, if not close to death!
When we are stressed, our mind seems to lose the distinction between chores and enjoyable activities – everything seems to get lumped together into “stuff to be done” and even our favourite hobbies feel like too much trouble to go to. If you find yourself not fancying doing any of the things that used to be fun, you probably need to start managing your stress better.
2. You forget things easily (or just don’t store the actions in your memory in the first place). This might be something minor, such as not remembering to stop off to buy milk on the way home, or it might be something more important like forgetting that your MOT or insurance is due for renewal. If you’re normally renown for your organisational skills and you find these sort of memory lapses happening, then the chances are that you’re experiencing another early warning sign of accumulating stress. This is certainly another of my stress canaries – recently I re-ordered something that I’d already received as I’d put the original away as soon as it arrived, without even thinking about it. – definitely a dead canary there!
When we’re stressed we often are thinking about the things that we believe need to be done later, so that we do small, everyday tasks on autopilot. As a result we are not always aware of what we’re doing and certainly don’t store the actions in our memory.
3. You are more easily irritated than usual (or others tell you that you are). This can be a harder one to spot as, when we’re irritated we tend to blame other people or things for our irritation. However, if you are being told that you seem to fly off the handle more easily than usual, then do reflect on how often recently you have been irritated by small matters. If you realise that you have been more tetchy than usual then you’re seeing another distressed stress canary.
Stress puts our brain on alert for threats and dangers, leaving little room for anything else. As a result it seems to perceive any distractions as getting in the way of its vigilance, and the smallest unexpected interruption makes it ready for a fight.
Becoming aware of these quieter signs of stress can help you avoid the more difficult to ignore ones. These signs often start before the stage of lying awake at night, or waking too early in the morning, your mind full of doubts and fears. They certainly occur before the more serious impacts of stress on physical and mental health. So do appreciate the existence of your stress canaries and take notice when they show signs of being distressed, rather than ignoring them as they die only to be followed by more serious problems.