What is chronic stress? ‘I’m stressed out’ is a popular phrase you will hear daily. Most people use the phrase to describe challenging situations they are undergoing, changes in life, or disorientations in relationships, work, or life in general.
According to America Psychological Association, stress is any change that causes emotional, psychological, or even physical pain.
It’s the body’s response to any issue that needs your attention and can differ from one person to another. But what is chronic stress, and how can you avoid it? Read on to find out.
See also Can Stress Cause Cancer and Why is Stress Management Important
What is Chronic Stress?
If your stress can’t go away, you could suffer from chronic stress.
As the name suggests, chronic stress is constant stress, stretching over a long time, usually more than a month.
When you are stressed, the body will normally initiate the fight-or-flight response to help you tackle the situation. And during this period, your stress hormones, Cortisol and adrenaline, will increase (for a short period of time) to help fight back, after which the body should go back to normal hemostasis.
However, in chronic stress, the stressor doesn’t go away, making it difficult for your body to return to its baseline functioning. As a result, the stress hormones stay high for too long as the body tries to fight back, thus leading to chronic stress.
This can result in various signs and symptoms.
Signs of Chronic Stress
1. Decreased energy
Chronic stress reduces important mood-boosting neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, which also boost energy, relieve tension, and enhance motivation.
In fact, low levels of these hormones can result in anxiety, depression, addiction, binge eating, and more.
Besides, the stress response mobilizes your energy stores to help fight the stressors, eventually depleting your stores, resulting in low energy.
While there are many contributors to depression, stress is a major one. A study done on women with a major depressive disorder found that depression was highly associated with both acute and chronic stress.
A study done on university students measured acne severity before and during an exam. The researchers found that the acne worsened during an exam when the stress levels were high.
Headache is the most common sign of chronic stress. This can especially be experienced on the forehead and neck region.
A military study surveying 172 consecutive US Army soldiers and military dependents had them complete a standardized questionnaire about their headache triggers. At the end of the study, 77% of the participants reported migraine, while 89 percent reported at least one headache trigger, among which stress-related triggers were more common.
5. Chronic pain
Although different factors can cause chronic pain, it can also be a sign of chronic stress. In a small study, people with chronic back pain were found to have higher stress hormone cortisol than the control group.
6. Impaired immune system
Chronic stress can weaken your immune system by decreasing your immune cells, such as the natural killer cells or lymphocytes, which the body needs to fight viruses and other invaders. This may, as a result, cause frequent infections.
7. Weight gain
Again, high Cortisol is the leading cause of weight gain when it comes to chronic stress. For one, it triggers unhealthy food cravings which cause a surge in blood glucose levels. This triggers insulin which moves the glucose out of the blood into the cells while storing some as fat. What’s more, Cortisol changes your body’s metabolism of fat, making it difficult to lose weight.
8. Chronic diseases
The sustained high levels of Cortisol in chronic stress can result in chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes, among others. If the stress is not resolved, these conditions can lead to more life-threatening complications such as heart attack, kidney damage, etc.
9. Digestive issues
Chronic stress can result in various digestive issues, including constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn. It has also been shown to increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or make them worse.
In an analysis done on 18 studies, 72% of the studies found an association between chronic stress and poor inflammatory bowel disease outcome.
Chronic Stress Symptoms
Chronic stress manifests in different ways depending on the type and the person. There are emotional, physical, behavioral, and cognitive signs, but not all of them will be seen in one person.
One might exhibit five symptoms, while another shows three symptoms over a long time. This section enlists tell-tale symptoms you need to be on the lookout for.
- Pains and aches
- Feelings of helplessness
- Increased substance abuse
- Insomnia (lack of sleep) or hypersomnia (too much sleep)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased agitation and irritability
- Feeling stuck in life (loss of control)
- Decreased productivity
- Cloudy thinking
- Change in appetite
- Emotional avoidance and withdrawal
- Difficulty relaxing
What Causes Chronic Stress?
There are various causes of chronic stress, and they differ from one person to another. While one may feel overwhelmed by work-related events, another could be struggling with personal issues. Here are the common examples you can easily relate to.
Often, relationships can be a source of joy and fulfillment. Whether it’s a spouse, partner, children, friends, or relatives, there are always bouts of joy when everything is smoothly running. However, they can put one under pressure and strain, especially when they turn abusive and toxic.
Traumatic stress is a reaction to an abnormal event that just happened in your life. It could be a violent act, sexual violation, serious injuries or accidents, domestic abuse, losing a job or a loved one, or other major life-changing events. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a common outcome of most traumatic events.
Dealing with a loved one’s terminal illness, economic hardships, and other mentally-draining situations can result in chronic stress. This is because it often puts you in a dire state of awareness, worrying, and sadness. All of this increases your chances of suffering from prolonged stress.
Work-related stress is among the most common stresses that people undergo. A recent survey showed that 80% of employees feel stressed at the workplace, and approximately 60% of absenteeism is attributed to stress.
Some of these stressors include lack of proper management, too much work, job insecurity, toxic bosses and colleagues, sexual harassment, discrimination, and unsatisfactory working conditions.
Additionally, if you are struggling with your work-life balance, you’re more likely to become stressed. And if you are unable to deal with this in good time, it could lead to chronic stress over time.
The environment plays a vital role in one’s daily mood. For example, if you’re living in a place with high crime cases or war, you’ll be constantly worried about your life. Over time this fear can lead to stress which can build up to cause chronic stress.
This is any stress related to money, expenses, debt, and economic issues. If it is prolonged and unmanaged, it will become chronic financial stress.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your Body:
Prolonged stress can begin to affect your personal life, including damaging what brings you joy. For example, your relationships will suffer, your hobbies will go unattended, and your work performance will reduce.
Besides, your body may also develop health conditions such as hypertension, and high cholesterol, making you susceptible to heart attacks. Others include:
- Weight gain or loss
- Stomach ulcers
- Sleep problems
- Substance abuse
- Memory and concentration impairment
How to Treat Chronic Stress?
There are three major approaches for treating chronic stress: lifestyle adjustment, medication, and psychotherapy. Each has its uniqueness, and the application depends on the extent of your condition. If your condition worsens, your psychotherapist may recommend using all three approaches.
Psychotherapy focuses on treating chronic stress through verbal communication and interactions. A good example is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Here you’ll learn more about your condition and better understand your feelings, moods, thoughts, and behaviors.
Expected benefits from psychotherapy include
- Being able to resolve conflict with your partner, at work, or in any other setting contributing to your chronic stress.
- Being able to cope with major life changes like divorce, or loss of a loved one, or a job
- Relieve anxiety contributing to the stress
- Being able to come to terms with an ongoing issue like a lifetime diagnosis
- Improved sleep
- Being able to recover from abuse like violence or rape
If your symptoms have taken a toll on you, a psychotherapist may prescribe medication to keep the anxiety, nervousness, and depression at bay.
Some medications you may see in your prescription include antidepressants like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), beta-blockers, and nutritional supplements.
SSRIs focus on the central nervous system and often have sedative effects. They slow the body down and make you feel more relaxed.
3. Lifestyle adjustments
Lifestyle changes are among the most incredible holistic methods of managing chronic stress. They include incorporating meditation into your routine, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and taking up exciting hobbies. These can minimize stress and make you feel happier by the day.
Tips for Recovering from and Preventing Chronic Stress
As Desiderius Erasmus said, prevention is better than cure. While there are ways to cure chronic stress, preventing it will always be the best management solution. The best thing is that the same practices for recovering can also be used as a preventative so that you do not fall back into chronic stress’ grip. Here are a few ways.
1. Engaging in regular exercise
Regular exercise boosts the production of endorphins in the body. These are the hormones responsible for better moods and satisfaction. The result is a happier and more confident you.
2. Spend time outdoors
Mother Nature always has a way of helping you deal with whatever stressors you are going through. Schedule thirty minutes or an hour and spend it outdoors in nature. During this time, you could walk in the park and just breathe in or read a book in the open air.
Research shows that spending time in nature helps you be in the present moment, which can help cut off your cycle of stressful thoughts.
3. Use mind relaxation techniques
According to research, mindfulness meditation can change how the brain thinks and reacts to issues, enhancing mental and physical health. These practices keep you grounded, help you release daily pressures, and get in touch with your inner self. All this ensures you have better control of your mind and body, even in stressful conditions.
4. Eat healthy and lose weight
While chronic stress results in both weight loss and weight gain, cases of the latter are always more. This is because most people undergoing chronic stress resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overindulgence in foods high in fats and sugars. These foods increase the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease, among other health issues.
To avoid all this and chronic stress, one should engage in healthy eating habits, including proper hydration, which can eventually help one maintain a healthy weight.
Besides, a healthy diet rich in whole foods provides your body with essential nutrients such as tryptophan, which boosts serotonin in the brain.
5. Taking time off of work
Most people take breaks when they are at their worst. While taking a break from work when you feel overwhelmed is a good idea, you must schedule breaks before burnout sets in.
This will help you effectively deal with stress when it sets in. Make it a habit, and you’ll notice the changes.
While stress itself isn’t bad, chronic stress is a serious problem that affects your life as a whole.
Chronic stress is when your body is constantly stressed, resulting in sustained stress hormones. This can be due to anything from a stressful relationship, traumatic events, or a stressful environment.
If not controlled, chronic stress can increase your risk of high blood pressure, weight gain, sleep problems, type 2 diabetes, depression, reduced productivity at work, substance abuse, and more.
A few things you can do to prevent or improve your condition include exercising, eating healthy, and taking some time for yourself.
If your stress seems out of control, don’t hesitate to seek medical help.
More about managing stress:
- Different Types of Stress
- Why Is Stress Management Important?
- What Is Anxiety?
- Can Stress Cause Stomach Ulcers?
- Stress Eating Disorder
- What is Emotional Flooding?
- Can Stress Cause Cancer?
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