What Is the Impact of Prolonged Stress?

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Prolonged stress, also known as chronic stress, is a long-term physiological response that can have serious health consequences if it is not treated. The impact of prolonged stress can include both physical and mental health conditions.

When people experience stress, the fight or flight response causes the release of hormones that help prepare the body to take action. You become both physically and mentally alert as your heart rate and breathing rate increase.

This allows you to take action in situations that require a quick response. However, being in this heightened state of arousal becomes problematic when there is no immediate danger and you remain in this state for a prolonged period of time.

Signs of Prolonged Stress

Long-term, prolonged stress can have a number of different effects on a person's body and mind. Some signs of prolonged stress include:

  • Anxiety
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Frequent illnesses and infections
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Irritability
  • Mood changes
  • Slow recovery from illness or infection
  • Trouble sleeping

Such symptoms may vary in intensity. Many of these symptoms may become worse over time as the stress continues to take its toll.

Causes

There are a number of situations that can lead to prolonged stress. Sometimes it might be caused by one serious, long-lasting problem, but people may experience several of these things all at once. Possible causes include:

  • Chronic health problems: Long-term health conditions can be a significant source of prolonged stress.
  • Difficult relationships: Challenging relationships with family members, partners, co-workers, or others can also create stress that lasts for a very long time.
  • Financial problems: Debt, sudden expenses, or changes in a person’s financial situation can create a significant amount of stress. 
  • Job-related stress: A high-pressure job, difficult work environment, or even employment uncertainty can all be a source of prolonged stress. 
  • Traumatic stressors: This would include things such as exposure to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, interpersonal violence, combat exposure, or exposure to other types of extreme violence.

Examples

The global COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a traumatic event that has created significant prolonged stress for people from all walks of life.

In addition to worrying about the possibility of getting sick or having a loved one contract the virus, people have also faced stressful challenges and mental health consequences such as job loss, decreased income, stay at home orders, virtual schooling, loneliness, and even conflicts with others over how to respond to the event. 

A report from the American Psychological Association found that some of the sources of stress caused by COVID-19 included disrupted routines, concerns about illness, worry over the government's response, self-isolation, and concerns about fulfilling basic needs.

The protests that emerged in response to the murder of George Floyd have also highlighted the prolonged stress that racism and discrimination have on individuals and communities.

Research has demonstrated that racism has serious negative effects on both physical and mental health. In 2020, the American Medical Association (AMA) formally identified racism as a public health threat.

Impact of Prolonged Stress

So what are the effects of this prolonged stress on the mind and body? Research suggests that the consequences of long-lasting stress can be serious and even devastating.

Conditions Linked to Prolonged Stress

Prolonged stress affects the entire body. This means it can have a direct or indirect impact on areas such as:

Mental Health

Prolonged stress can take a serious toll on an individual's mental health. Chronic, ongoing stress has been linked to conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, substance use problems, sleep difficulties, and personality disorders. Long-lasting stress can also have an effect on a person’s memory, self-esteem, concentration, as well as other aspects of learning and cognition.

Research has also found that prolonged stress can actually result in changes in brain structure, including volume reductions in certain areas of the brain. These structural brain changes have the potential to lead to behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dysfunction and ultimately increase a person's vulnerability to mental illness.

Cardiovascular System

Acute stress causes the cardiovascular system to go into high gear—the heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate, and blood pressure goes up to pump oxygenated blood to areas throughout the body.

Normally, the body returns to its resting state once the stress has passed, but prolonged stress exposes the cardiovascular system to higher levels of stress hormones that can take a toll over time.

Chronic, lasting stress can increase a person's risk for problems such as high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke. 

Gastrointestinal System

Stress can also cause stomach and digestion problems. In the short term, you might just feel like you have "butterflies" in your stomach, but when that stress never goes away, it can trigger problems including stomach pains and bloating.

Researchers also believe that the bacteria in a person's gut may have an influence on moods, so disruptions to gut bacteria may also affect mental health and other body systems as well.

Research suggests that the changes to the brain-gut interaction caused by stress can contribute to a range of ailments including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), peptic ulcers, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Musculoskeletal System

When you feel stressed, you've probably noticed that your muscles tense up. With prolonged stress, this muscle tension lasts for a long period of time. As a result, people may develop headaches or migraines, often as a result of the muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders remaining taut.

Respiratory System

Prolonged stress can also interfere with the body's respiratory processes. Psychological stress may make breathing more difficult, leading to rapid breathing and shortness of breath. People who already have a respiratory condition such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may find that their symptoms worsen as a result of ongoing stress.

How to Deal With Prolonged Stress

If you think that you are being affected by prolonged stress, there are things that you can do to help find relief. Establishing effective stress management practices is important for maintaining good physical and mental health.

Even if you cannot always control the sources of your ongoing stress, you can manage the ways that you respond and cope. Some strategies that might help are listed below.

Eliminate the Stress

One of the best ways to reduce prolonged stress is to address it at its root cause. Of course, this may not always be possible. In other cases, it might involve making a major change in your life. 

If it is a relationship that is causing the stress in your life, you might want to take a serious look at whether you want to continue the relationship. If it is your job that is causing your stress, you might want to look into finding a different job, or shifting into a different role at your current job.

Of course, it is important to remember that big changes can also be a source of prolonged stress. This is why it is important to evaluate your options and determine what the potential pros and cons of making a change might be.

Making a change now might temporarily increase stress and anxiety, but it may pay off in decreased stress and greater happiness over the long term.

Reframe Your Thoughts

Sometimes the ways that people think about the sources of their stress can make the situation worse. Cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, and magnification can make stressful things seem worse than they are or even overwhelming.

Cognitive reframing, a technique frequently used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), involves changing the way that you think about these stressors in order to better manage your emotions and stress response.

For example, this approach might focus on helping you change catastrophic thoughts that focus on worst-case scenarios into less stressful, more realistic ones.

Set Limits (For Yourself and Others) 

It is important to decide what things you need to do while cutting out non-essential sources of stress. This might mean saying no to some obligations, setting boundaries with people, or delegating some responsibilities to others.

Boundaries can be an important part of managing stress, so it is important to learn how to recognize when you need to set some limits. Some signs that you need to establish some limits: 

  • You feel like people are always asking too much
  • You find yourself saying yes to things you don’t really want to do
  • You always feel drained by all of your obligations

Learning how to say no isn’t always easy. However, finding ways to limit your obligations can help significantly when it comes to coping with prolonged stress.

If you feel overwhelmed by your stress, ask for help. Delegating some responsibilities while cutting out some non-essential tasks may also beneficial.

Take Care of Yourself

When you are facing ongoing stress, it is particularly important to practice healthy self-care. Give yourself breaks to relax, follow a nutritious diet, get regular exercise, and find ways to protect your sleep.

Exercise, for example, has a wide range of positive health benefits, including reductions in perceived stress and anxiety. However, research also suggests that experiencing stress also makes it more difficult for people to stick to their usual physical activity routine.

If stress makes it difficult to stay motivated to exercise, look for ways to gradually make exercise a part of your routine. Set small goals, even if it's 10 to 20 minutes of activity a day, and then gradually work your way up. You may find that over time, engaging in physical activity actually helps you better cope with your stress.

Coping With Stress From COVID-19

For example, if you are experiencing prolonged stress as a result of COVID-19, there are things that you can do that can help you manage your stress response. Some ideas to consider:

  • You might set limits on how much media you allow yourself to view each day, such as reducing how often you watch the news or check social media.
  • Caring for yourself by taking time to relax or engage in activities that you find pleasurable can provide a much-needed break. 
  • Reaching out to friends and loved ones. Even if you cannot see each other in person, phone calls, and video chats can help you stay connected and give you a shoulder to lean on when you are feeling anxious or stressed.

Build a Support Network

While relationships can sometimes be a source of prolonged stress, having supportive people in your life to lean on also acts as an important buffer against acute and chronic stress. Research has found that social support is critical for both physical and mental health.

Not only does support help people become more resilient, but it also helps protect people from developing mental disorders related to stress and trauma. For example, one study found that social support helped reduce the effects of stress on symptoms of depression.

Finding support doesn't mean you need to have an enormous network. The American Psychological Association suggests that having a handful of friends and family members can provide the emotional support you need to better manage your stress.

Talk to a Therapist

Talking to a mental health professional is also a great way to take control of your stress and mitigate the impact that it has on your health. Your therapist can help you identify the sources of stress in your life and come up with a plan to deal with them. This might involve working on developing new coping strategies or finding new ways to deal with difficult people.

If you are experiencing problems with alcohol or substance use or are experiencing thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately. 

A Word From Verywell

If prolonged stress is affecting your physical and mental health, talk to your doctor about your concerns. A doctor can help rule out any other medical or mental health conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms and recommend treatments—such as psychotherapy or medications—that can help. 

Your doctor may prescribe medications to help with some of the immediate symptoms of stress. This might include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antacids, or sleeping medications. They may also recommend psychotherapy or lifestyle modifications that will help you cope with stress in the long-term.

While you may not be able to completely eliminate different types of prolonged stress, learning how to manage it effectively can help protect both your physical and mental well-being.

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