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Dana Wilson There is good stress and there is bad stress. Pleasant events can be stressful in a positive way. And bad events can be stressful in a negative way. They can even make you physically ill.

The trick is recognizing the early symptoms of negative stress so you can do something about it.

The more competitive the field, the harder it is to overtake your competition and reach your goal.  Once you get there, the next hurdle is holding your position and keeping the competition at bay.

This fact of life is true for all fields. In technical industries, the race to success can be particularly nasty. It doesn’t matter whether you’re creating, promoting or selling a product or service, to get to that special place, you better be in top shape. That translates to being the smartest, toughest and the strongest (physically and mentally). You also need to be persistent, confident, and truly believe in your talents – even when everything seems to be going wrong.

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If you have enormous responsibility and you’re earning a great salary, you’re expected to achieve astonishing results. But you’re also more vulnerable and open to intense scrutiny. Your backers and supporters are cheering you on while your competitors are watching your every move from the sidelines anxious for you to make a mistake. Make too many mistakes and you’re history.

If a low-level manager in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, hopes to ascend the career ladder, he or she has to be prepared to take on the biggest and riskiest projects – any of which could fail miserably. They could be aborted before they’re seriously underway because of major developmental problems or irreparable differences among the principles.

Put all of these realities together and you have the fundamentals of career building.

If not fit to play the success game, then you’re better off in a secure, quiet and adequately paying job where you’re barely visible and a hard target for anyone who wants your job. If you hold a marginal job no one wants, you’re safe for a while. There you remain – safe, secure and bored silly. If you suffer intense stress, it will probably be triggered by apathy and depression because you’re hanging in limbo – hardly a blip on the big-picture radar screen – and going nowhere.

Most people opt to play the success game. We want to feel good about ourselves, we want our friends and family to be proud of us, and most of all, we want to enjoy the fruits of success.

But here’s the rub: Over that long, often grueling road to success, you risk making a very human – but also a very dangerous – mistake. And that is over-extending yourself and taking on more than you can handle; never saying “no” when asked to take on more work or a new project. When your boss asks you if you can work Saturday and Sunday to complete a project, you accept, hoping it makes an indelible impression, a sign of true dedication. But that’s often a poor assumption.

The results of never turning down additional work are twofold: First, you set a bad precedent. Occasionally, you have to put in extra hours in order to make a tight deadline or complete a tough project. They ought to be the exception, rather than the rule. But every time someone is needed to put in brutal extra hours, you’ll be called first. The sad aftermath is your job becomes your life. Eventually, the quality of your life plummets.

The second, and most important, result is that your work suffers as well. Mistakenly, we see ourselves as invincible, human machines that never break down. But we’re not cyborgs: we breakdown if we don’t alter our pace and take frequent breaks. Without realizing it initially, the constant pressure of non-stop work creates enormous and ultimately debilitating stress.

Like carbon monoxide, stress can be deceptively toxic because, if not recognized, it can potentially kill you.

Stress overload comes from the day-in-day-out dealing with too much pressure. It’s the result of too many demands and too little time, and the frustration of not always being able to get things to come out right.

Knowing that stress is hammering away at your mind and body is the first, and most important, step towards doing something about it.

Symptoms fall into three broad areas: physical, emotional and relational.  Here are the common symptoms in each category.

  • Physical: Sleep disturbances; back, shoulder or neck pain; tension or migraine headaches; upset or acid stomach, cramps, heartburn; weight gain or loss; eating disorders; hair loss; and fatigue.
  • Emotional: Nervousness, anxiety; depression, moodiness;  irritability, frustration; memory problems; feeling out of control; and substance abuse.
  • Relational symptoms: Frequent job changes; road rage; domestic or workplace violence; overreactions; isolation from social activities; conflict with co-workers or employers; domestic or workplace violence; overreactions; increased arguments; isolation from social activities; and conflict with co-workers or employers.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.

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