What Is Chronic Stress?

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What Is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is a prolonged and constant feeling of stress that can negatively affect your health if it goes untreated. It can be caused by the everyday pressures of family and work or by traumatic situations.

Chronic stress occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis. This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal.

This affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly. People were built to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is steady over a long period of time. In order to begin managing chronic stress, it is important to understand what it is, what may be causing it, and how it affects the entire body.

Symptoms

Chronic stress affects both the mind and body. It produces both physical and psychological symptoms that can take a toll on a person's ability to function normally in their daily life.

These symptoms can vary in their severity from one person to the next. Some of the most common signs of chronic stress include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Frequent illnesses and infections
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Upset stomach

Identifying Chronic Stress

It isn't always easy to recognize chronic stress. Because it is pervasive and long-lasting, people often grow so accustomed to it that it begins to feel normal. Some signs to look for when identifying chronic stress:

  • Are you often moody or irritated?
  • Does it feel like you are always worrying about something?
  • Does it seem like you don't have time to take care of yourself or do the things that you enjoy? 
  • Do the smallest inconveniences seem like too much to handle?
  • Do you always seem to catch colds or get infections?
  • Have you been relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol to manage your stress?

Causes

This type of chronic stress response occurs all too frequently from our modern lifestyle. Everything from high-pressured jobs to loneliness to busy traffic can keep the body in a state of the perceived threat and chronic stress.

In this case, our fight-or-flight response, which was designed to help us fight occasional life-threatening situations (like being attacked by a bear every so often), can wear down our bodies and cause us to become ill, either physically or emotionally.

Estimates suggest that between 60—80% of primary care visits involve a stress-related component. That's why it is so important to learn stress management techniques and make healthy lifestyle changes to safeguard yourself from the negative impact of chronic stress.

Types of Chronic Stress

Sources of chronic stress can vary, but often fall into one of four different types:

  • Emotional stress (difficult emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration)
  • Environmental stress (where you live and work)
  • Relationship stress (how you relate to friends, family, co-workers, partners)
  • Work stress (challenges and pressures related to your job)

In many instances, these types of stresses affect multiple domains in a person's life. Work stress can create stress in your relationships. Relationship stress can make it more difficult to manage difficult emotions.

For example, if your family is struggling financially or with a severe illness, the stress can become chronic. Someone in your home may not be able to work, bills are piling up and your home is nearing foreclosure, and this can leave you stressed for months or even a year or more.

Your constant worry wears down your body, making you feel tired and anxious. You may be working harder than ever to make ends meet and make unhealthy choices about food and exercise, which can make you feel even worse. This can lead to a number of significant health concerns.

We can also have chronic stress related to work. Many jobs require a lot from us, and it can often feel like you never get a break or are always under pressure to perform.

Working overtime, constant travel, and high-pressure business relations can keep your body in a constant state of excitement, even when you get home to your family. This can also add to the wear and tear on your body, and continuous stress can contribute to serious health issues like heart disease.

Impact

Because chronic stress is so prolonged, it can have a detrimental impact on your health and well-being if left untreated. Some potential complications related to chronic stress include:

  • Acne
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Low sex drive
  • Ulcers
  • Weight changes

Finding ways to manage chronic stress is important for overall well-being. This may involve professional treatment, but self-help and relaxation strategies can also often be effective.

Treatment

If severe chronic stress is causing significant distress or impairing your ability to function normally, professional treatment can help you develop new coping skills and find ways to lower your stress levels. Options include:

  • Psychotherapy: Approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn to identify negative thought patterns that contribute to chronic stress. Working with a therapist, you can then begin to change these thoughts to more realistic, helpful ones. You can also learn coping tools that will help you to better manage your response to stress. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is another approach that can help people utilize mindfulness and meditation to cope with chronic stress.
  • Medications: Your doctor may prescribe different medications to help you manage some of the symptoms of stress. If you are also experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant. Your doctor may also prescribe medications that can help you sleep or reduce stomach upset.

Coping

Chronic stress can often be managed through self-help approaches. It is important to begin using stress management techniques as early as possible when you recognize chronic stress in your life. This works for a few reasons.

  • Provides quick stress relief: Fast-acting techniques can reverse the stress response so your body has a chance to recover and your mind can approach problems from a proactive stance rather than reacting from a stressed or even panicked perspective. When you're making choices from a more relaxed and confident place, you tend to make choices that better serve your best interests and avoid creating more stress for yourself.
  • Develops stress resilience: Longer-term healthy habits can also be important, because they can build resilience and give you chances to take a break from stress on a regular basis. This can help you avoid staying stressed so constantly that you don't realize how stressed you are, which can keep you from taking steps to reduce the stress in your life. It can also save you from the more negative effects of chronic stress. Some of the most effective habits include exercise, meditation, and journaling, as they have been shown to promote resilience to stress
  • Creates new coping skills: Changing how you respond to stress can help as well. Taking steps to reduce the stressful situations you face (saying no more often, for example) and to change your perspective (reminding yourself of the resources you can use and the strength you possess) can both help. Approaching stress from a proactive stance can help reduce chronic stress.

If you have tried self-help strategies and feel you need more assistance, or if you feel these will not be enough to help, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor about your concerns. Effective help is available.

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Article Sources
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