Chronic Stress: What Is It and What Can We Do About It?

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

This article was written by Stephanie Chen.

Whether it be from job security, financial instability, college applications, virtual learning, or pandemic-era uncertainty, almost every person in my life is overwhelmed with stress. When difficult-to-solve problems induce such intense pressure, they may evolve into long-term stressors. Affecting everyone from high schoolers to senior citizens, these persistent feelings of stress are not uncommon, and they have a name: chronic stress.

Yale Medicine defines chronic stress as: “A consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time.”

The longevity and constant nature of chronic stress contrasts the simpler, rapid, and life-threatening stressors that the human stress response has evolved to combat. As a result, chronic stress often leads to unhealthy symptoms, such as aches and pains, insomnia, low energy, and changes in appetite and social behavior. However, by learning and implementing healthy and effective coping mechanisms to deal with chronic stress, we may develop resilience against stressors and improve our overall well-being.

The Stress Response

Harvard Medical School explains that stressful situations induce the stress response in the human body, triggering “a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes.” When encountering a stressor, a person’s amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotional processing, signals the hypothalamus, the “command center” area of the brain, leading to the release of the hormone epinephrine into the bloodstream. Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, then induces physiological changes, such as a faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, rapid breathing, sharper senses, and an increase in energy.

When the stressor eventually passes, hormone levels in the body change, and the parasympathetic nervous system begins to halt the stress response, ending the reaction. Yet, if the brain continues to perceive a threat, the stress response will remain activated. If activated for too long, such as when dealing with a chronic stressor, the stress response can lead to negative side effects.

In the past, humans faced shorter-lasting, life-threatening stressors, allowing the stress response to function well. It was activated, physiological changes were induced to prepare the body for danger, and when the danger passed, it ended.

In other words, a typical stress cycle consisted of a beginning, middle, and an end.

On the other hand, in chronic stress, the stress response continues to be activated for long periods of time, often never fully reaching its “end”. Thus, leaving the body trapped in the middle, never completing the stress cycle, experiencing the aforementioned physiological changes on a daily basis.

Symptoms and Side Effects

Chronic stress can negatively affect the body and lead to undesirable side effects. However, identifying these side effects can help us understand how and if chronic stress is influencing our lives.

Yale Medicine lists potential symptoms of chronic stress as:

  • “Aches and pains
  • Insomnia or sleepiness
  • A change in social behavior, such as staying in often
  • Low energy
  • Unfocused or cloudy thinking
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Change in emotional responses to others
  • Emotional withdrawal”

In addition to these symptoms, chronic stress may also increase our risk of developing different health problems. Mayo Clinic states that it could potentially increase your risk of:

  • “Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment”

Stress is often seen as a purely mental affliction. Yet, as we have seen, it can also manifest physically in many ways. Therefore, it is important to recognize the effects it can have on our overall wellbeing as well as seek a deeper understanding of its roots and appropriate coping techniques that may alleviate some of its impact on our lives.

Coping with Chronic Stress

Luckily, there are many different ways we can deal with chronic stress. Certain coping methods may work better for certain people, so it is important to experiment and see what works best on an individual basis .

In a podcast episode with Brené Brown, doctors Emily and Amelia Nagoski , the authors of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”, explain that in order to return our body to a healthy state, we need to complete the stress cycle, signaling our body to end the stress response. For chronic stress, this may mean completing the stress cycle everyday. Emily Nagoski explains this in the context of a big project as the stressor: “…you hang out with your family and you eat something great, and then you get a good night’s sleep and you wake up in the morning, and there’s the big project for you to work on again. And so, you have to do the same thing to drain off the stress again.

For general daily practices to manage stress, Mayo Clinic suggests eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, keeping a journal, practicing gratitude, engaging in hobbies, devoting time to friends and family, volunteering, and seeking professional counseling.

Citing research, Amelia and Emily Nagoski recommend three methods that can help complete the stress cycle and encourage the body to move on from a state of stress: running (exercising, moving your body), seeking safety (finding comfort from a friend or family member, perhaps engaging in a 20-second hug), and resting (getting enough sleep, napping). Breathing exercises and meditation may also be effective strategies to deal with chronic stress. Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health states that if overwhelmed by stress, one might want to consider seeking help from a medical professional.

Below are additional resources to help anyone better understand and cope with chronic stress:

Chronic stress has largely become a part of modern life. Although it can be difficult to deal with, there are many ways to cope with and learn to manage severe bouts of stress. Understanding chronic stress and purposefully implementing and integrating stress-management techniques into our lives can help increase our general well-being and, ultimately, allow us to lead a healthier and more fulfilled life.

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