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Emotional Wellness

How Chronic Stress Can Damage Your Health

Short-lived feelings of stress occur regularly and pass when the situation improves. However, when these feelings become chronic, they can severely impact your health. Frequent insomnia, irritating headaches, and decreased activity could all be signs that you are stressed. Stress affects your body, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. If unchecked, chronic stress can lead to health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

Stress Response 101

The human body is well-equipped to handle stress, but only in small doses. When your body perceives a threat, the hypothalamus—a tiny region in the brain that acts as a control tower—sends out an order that triggers the release of stress hormones. The stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline causes the heart rate to increase, blood pressure to elevate, and energy to boost. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, causes glucose levels to increase in the bloodstream and triggers a reaction that prepares the body to repair tissues. This natural response protects your body in an emergency by preparing you to react fast. But chronic stress puts your health at risk when your stress responses keep firing.

How stress affects your body – Sharon Horesh Bergquist – TED

What Is Chronic Stress?

So, what is stress? It’s a physical or emotional tension that causes you to feel nervous, angry, or frustrated. It’s the body’s way of reacting to challenges or demands. Short bursts can positively impact you, helping you avoid danger or meet deadlines. Chronic stress occurs when these short bursts of stress occur for a long time. There are two types of stress—acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute stress is short-term stress that usually goes away quickly. It’s the stress you feel in certain situations, like fighting with your partner, slamming the brakes suddenly, or plummeting down when skydiving. Acute stress helps you avoid or control dangerous situations.

Everyone experiences acute stress when they do something new or exciting. Chronic stress, however, lasts much longer. It usually goes on for weeks or even months. It can occur when you are in an unhappy relationship or have money or work troubles. Most people don’t even realize they’re experiencing chronic stress. In most cases, they will try to cure the physical symptoms, like migraines.

Types of Chronic Stress

Sources of chronic stress vary from one person to another. However, they fall into one of the four following categories:

  • Emotional stress: This is chronic stress from difficult emotions like sadness, anger, or frustration.
  • Relationship stress: This stress centers around family, friends, partners, or co-workers.
  • Work stress: This involves pressures and challenges at work.
  • Environmental stress: This stress is caused by triggers at where you work or live.

Usually, these types of stressors affect more than one aspect of your life. For instance, work stress can cause a strain on your relationships, which makes it challenging to manage difficult emotions.

If your family is struggling financially or someone in your family is battling a severe illness, this can easily lead to chronic stress. The constant worries can wear down your body, making you anxious and tired.

When chronic stress kicks in, it creates a ripple effect that leads to different kinds of stress. For example, when you work harder to make ends meet, you may end up making unhealthy food choices and exercise, leaving you feeling even worse.

Chronic Stress Symptoms: Stress Effects on the Body

The body’s stress response system remains active until the perceived threat is over. During that time, your breathing increases, and your heart beats faster until the danger passes. The stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol levels then drop, and the body’s systems resume regular operation.

However, if you have a chronic stressor that won’t go away, your body’s stress response system remains on high alert. Some people may describe this as constantly feeling like you’re under attack or as anxiety that never passes.

Black woman sitting cross legged on sofa with head in her hands at home.
Everyone experiences acute stress when they do something new or exciting. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

When overexposed to stress hormones, your body begins wreaking havoc on other body processes. Chronic stress effects on the body include:

  • Mental health problems like anxiety and depression
  • Digestive or stomach problems
  • Chronic headaches
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Cardiovascular health issues like heart attack, heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms, stroke, and high blood pressure
  • Difficulty concentrating, rapid and disorganized thoughts, and memory problems
  • Weight gain, obesity, and other eating disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction like impotence and premature ejaculation, as well as loss of sexual desire

Healthy Ways of Coping With Stress

Now you know the effects of stress on the body, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope with life stressors that could result in chronic stress. The first step is identifying what could be causing your stress. Once identified, you can remove it from your life or find ways to cope. Some healthy stress management strategies include:

Relaxation Activities

Relaxing activities like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and breathing exercises can help you de-stress. You can access programs online and in-person, through mobile apps, and at your gym or community center.

Take Care of Your Body

One of the best ways to reduce stress is to ensure that you take care of your body. Eat right, create time for exercise, and get enough sleep. All these can help your body handle stress when it kicks in much better.

woman eating salad at hone in kitchen, leaning on table
The best way to reduce stress is to take care of your body. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Practice Gratitude

Staying positive and practicing gratitude can help you cope with stress. Acknowledging everything good in your life rather than focusing on what is wrong or could go wrong will go a long way in helping you deal with the emotional effects of stress.

Accept That You Can’t Control Everything

Life is full of ups and downs, with many situations out of our control. Focusing on what you can’t control will only cause you to be stressed out, which will eventually lead to chronic stress. Find ways of letting go of worries about situations you can’t change.

Learn to Say “NO”

Sometimes, chronic stress can be a result of handling too many responsibilities. When you are already too busy or stressed, learn to say “no” to additional duties.

Stay Connected to People Who Matter

Keep yourself surrounded by people who provide emotional support when you need it, make you happy, and keep you calm. These can be friends, family, or even your partner. Lean on friends who are good listeners or can help share responsibilities when stress seems overwhelming.

happy best friends hugging each other
Keep yourself surrounded by people who provide emotional support. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Make Time for Hobbies

When work and other responsibilities like family become too much, stress can creep in without you even realizing it. That’s why making time in your busy schedule is essential to enjoy hobbies. Whether that means catching the latest movie with your spouse, reading a book, or listening to music, making time for hobbies will help you unwind.

Seek Professional Help

If you feel like you’re struggling, ask for help. A therapist can help you develop coping strategies to manage stress.

Chronic Stress: When to Seek Help

Chronic stress can surface in physical and mental symptoms. At times, you can pinpoint the exact cause of your stress and deal with the trigger. However, it can be hard to know what is causing your stress if you’re like most people.

Acute vs. chronic stress: Signs it’s time to seek professional help

Stress will manifest in different ways, like muscle aches, digestive problems, insomnia, restlessness, sadness, and irritability. If you are not sure if stress could be causing any or all of these symptoms, seek professional help from a doctor, counselor, or therapist. Sometimes, when unable to cope with stress, people turn to unhealthy solutions like alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy eating habits. Seeking help can give you the necessary tools to feel more in control.

While it feels impossible to escape the daily stressors of life, you can find a way to unwind so that you can cope with stress more effectively. Never underestimate the damage chronic stress can cause. By being aware of the symptoms, you can check in on yourself and practice self-care when you need it the most.

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