Stress is a part of everyday life in modern society. From long checkout lines to bumper-to-bumper traffic to the boss handing you an urgent assignment at the end of the day, to unruly children, bills that are piling up, worries about medical tests, failing grades, and countless other things, stress is unavoidable.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, goes well beyond everyday stressors. When someone is stressed for extended periods, they’re unable to cope, feel overwhelmed and pressured, and may develop an increasing list of symptoms. Uncontrolled, long-term stress is a prescription for disaster, leading to a heightened risk for potentially life-threatening diseases and conditions.
How do you know if what you’re experiencing is chronic stress?
Common Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Stress
The signs and symptoms of chronic stress are easy to spot and include:
- Disturbed sleep, persistent insomnia
- Generalized aches and pains
- Unfocused and cloudy thinking
- Reduced socialization
- Emotional withdrawal
- Loss of sexual libido
- Decreased appetite
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight loss
- Body hair loss
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
It is important to note that these symptoms may indicate another condition besides chronic stress. A thorough medical examination can rule out other causes or confirm that chronic stress is responsible.
The Physiological and Emotional Effects of Chronic Stress
Like the frog in water, over time, the effects of chronic stress on an individual reach a boiling point. Their psychological resources slowly drain, and damage to their bodies and brains results. The worst part about chronic stress is that once you’re in the middle of it, you may think you can’t do anything to change it.
Uncontrolled stress can affect the reproductive system, suppressing it to the point that reproductive functions suffer. This has been found in anorexic athletes. The stress from extreme exercise can also result in the cessation of menstruating and ovulation in women.
Men’s reproductive and sexual health may suffer adverse effects from too much cortisol due to extreme, long-term stress. They may become impotent, have low sex drive, impaired sperm production, and even develop erectile dysfunction.
Prolonged stress can hinder normal growth in children. This is often seen in premature infants.
Digestive problems can arise due to chronic stress.
The effect of chronic stress on the immune system may make individuals more vulnerable to infections, flu, colds, and fatigue.
Those with chronic stress may develop one of several stress-related disorders, including:
- Anxiety, anxiety disorder
- Anorexia nervosa
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse
- Heart disease
According to experts, depression, addiction, hypertension, and anxiety disorders are the conditions that are most related to chronic stress.
Chronic Stress and Anxiety
If you’ve had chronic stress for years, your doctor has likely recommended lifestyle changes to help cut down on stressful situations. Uncurbed stress leads to heightened anxiety and vice-versa. Thus, chronic stress and anxiety are two reciprocal components of potentially worsening physical and emotional health.
Long-Term Consequences and Health Risks
Chronic stress poses long-term consequences and many health risks. This is a condition no one should take lightly. Yet, understanding the damage chronic stress can do is the first step in getting control of it.
What Chronic Stress for Years Does to Your Body
The human body is an incredibly complex mechanism composed of systems and organs working harmoniously — when it functions optimally. The effects of long-term stress on bodily systems include the following:
Chronic stress can result in a faster heartbeat.
The body may release cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
Cortisol buildup in the brain can lead to impaired functioning in critical areas. This can result in reduced sociability and avoidance of social interaction. Too much cortisol in the brain also kills brain cells and may cause the brain to reduce size. This can lead to memory and learning problems. Cognitive functioning also suffers.
Other problems resulting from long-term stress include increased heart disease risk and heightened diabetes and high blood pressure risks. Immune system problems from toxic, long-term stress can further exacerbate existing illnesses.
Coping Strategies and Seeking Support for Managing Chronic Stress
While living with chronic stress isn’t anything to wish for, it is possible to learn effective strategies to cope with stressful situations. You can learn to manage stress levels to minimize the harm uncontrolled stress can cause. Indeed, without taking steps to do something to reduce stress, serious health problems will ultimately develop.
What should you do? While doing away with every trigger that causes stress may be impossible, you can minimize the damage and help lower stress levels with these coping techniques.
- Learn ways to help you cope with chronic stress.
- Maintain a regular sleep routine and ensure consistent, restful sleep.
- Exercise every day, even if it is brief. Vigorous physical exercise boosts endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones. Endorphins are good for stress reduction. They also help lessen anxiety and ease depression and stress while boosting mood.
- Eat healthy meals regularly (do not skip meals). Steer clear of inflammation-causing foods, which tend to worsen depression and stress. Add more fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, and processed foods.
- Limit caffeine consumption in coffee and soft drinks.
- Enlist the support of family members or friends in your goal of learning how to cope positively with stress.
- Engage in enjoyable hobbies or activities. Paint, read, listen to your favorite music, or do what you love.
- Determine what your negative, unwelcome, and unhelpful thoughts are. Challenge them.
- Find a professional therapist who can guide you through treatment to get chronic stress under control.
Chronic Stress Treatment
What is the best treatment for chronic stress — especially if you’ve suffered chronic stress for years? We’re not talking about mild, daily, or even acute stress due to significant physiological or psychological reactions to a particular event, but stress that persists or intensifies for a prolonged period. When you suffer from chronic stress, you consistently feel pressured and overwhelmed.
Most people have some coping mechanisms that serve them well to get past mild stress. From taking a soothing bath to listening to music to chatting with a friend, these are effective remedies that relieve stress.
Life is increasingly complex, however. What people go through today involves many situations for which there are no easy answers.
What Is The Best Chronic Stress Treatment?
Once chronic stress is diagnosed, the individual will often receive a treatment plan for specified symptoms. For example, if digestive symptoms are caused by stress, medication may be prescribed, along with recommendations for dietary changes and stress reduction techniques.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), no drug can cure chronic stress. However, the body has a built-in mechanism to reset stress, known as the relaxation response. This helps stressed-out individuals lower their blood pressure, slow their heart rate, decrease stress hormone levels, and decrease oxygen consumption.
Counseling and therapies are often recommended to treat long-term stress that interferes with overall quality of life. Treatments may include psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), integrative therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, biofeedback, and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Of course, learning how to cope with stress is also crucial. That’s why individuals in treatment for chronic stress may learn and incorporate mindfulness practices into their lives. These include deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, tai chi, and mindfulness yoga. Progressive muscle relaxation is also highly effective in lowering stress.
Remember that chronic stress damages the brain and body, but the changes don’t have to be permanent. The body has remarkable recovery posers. Interventions and coping strategies can offer significant relief from the symptoms of chronic stress and lead to better overall health and well-being.
Next Steps for Chronic Stress
Are you experiencing chronic stress and want to learn how to overcome it? If you’ve struggled to cope with stress, anxiety, and other symptoms persist, now may be the time to seek professional help. Our experts at Restore-Mental Health are always available to answer questions and discuss how our programs and services can help. Don’t let chronic stress rob your life of joy. Contact us for more information.