Stress. It’s an awful word and a worse feeling, isn’t it? The thing is, stress isn’t all bad. Without it, we wouldn’t be motivated to take steps to protect ourselves, to plan for the future or to perform.
A certain level of stress (especially “good” eustress) helps us to adapt to our environment and pushes us to excel. The stress that is worrisome is chronic stress, which many in the world and particularly the U.S. may be suffering from right now, between the pandemic and now the social unrest that recently erupted after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer.
What does chronic stress do to your body? It can affect you negatively in multiple ways; for example, research confirms that elevated cortisol levels can increase susceptibility to some illnesses, sleep deprivation, and even brain shrinkage and memory problems in adults of middle age.
According to the CDC, chronic stress can affect your quality of life and even dampen your immune system, which is why it’s important to incorporate natural stress relievers into your regular routine to help you cope.
What Is Chronic Stress?
Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”
Your central nervous system (CNS), which is in charge of your “fight or flight” response, controls levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol and adrenaline that circulate through your body. Your hypothalamus communicates with your adrenal glands to release more stress hormones when you’re feeling threatened or overwhelmed.
While stress itself may not be a good thing, in reality each of us is only here because of the stress response. Our ancestors reacted to a threat by fighting or fleeing, literally or figuratively, and so survived thanks to this fight or flight instinct. Whether it was a food shortage or a physical threat, they went into what the prominent science center, the Franklin Institute, refers to as “metabolic overdrive.”
- During periods of acute stress, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body
- Blood pressure, breathing and heart rate increase
- Glucose is released into the bloodstream for ready energy
- Digestion, growth, reproduction and immune system functions are suppressed or put on hold
- Blood flow to the skin is decreased, and pain tolerance is increased
Chronic stress vs. acute stress: what’s the difference?
It typically takes about 90 minutes for the metabolism to return to normal following an acutely stressful event. However, with chronic stress, most people tend to ignore or push down symptoms until they eventually “burn out,” which can take months.
When facing chronic stress, many of us don’t physically dispel stress hormones or take the time to resolve the real problems (if they are even capable of being resolved). If we aren’t able to soothe ourselves, to grieve or to take the time to question our priorities, stress can linger on and on for many months or even years.
What are examples of chronic stress? Chronic stress examples can include:
- Emotional distress due to grieving the death of a loved one
- A serious health diagnosis, especially one that limits daily functioning and requires a hospital stay/ongoing treatments
- Financial problems, including unemployment
- Work stress, including feeling overwhelmed with everyday responsibilities and stress tied to commuting
- Emotional stress plus fatigue when taking care of others among doctors, nurses, EMTs or other health care providers/first responders
- Feeling socially isolated
- Family-related stress, often due to feeling short on time, rushed and overwhelmed
- War and violence, especially if serving in the military
- Relationship problems, especially those involving abuse or divorce
- Major life changes like moving to a new city or starting a new demanding career path
- Injuries that lead to chronic pain
- Internal causes of stress tied to one’s mindset, including living with guilt and regret, pessimism, rigid thinking, lack of flexibility, negative self-talk and perfectionism
Again, during this pandemic and now the ongoing protests triggered by George Floyd’s death sweeping the nation, chronic stress is palpable in nearly every household.
What are the symptoms of chronic stress? According to the American Institute of Stress, chronic distress can cause more than 50 symptoms. Five of the most common chronic stress symptoms include: irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches and trouble sleeping.
Here are some of the many negative effects that unresolved stress can have on your body:
- Reduced ability to concentrate and act efficiently, as stress has negative effects on memory and learning. It can lead to less fuel being sent to the brain, and poor communication between brain cells.
- Increased risk for substance abuse problems, including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs
- Weakening of your immune system, making fighting infection much more difficult
- Increased inflammatory responses and release of compounds known as cytokines, which affect tissues and organs all over the body
- Food addictions, gambling, checking out with television and video games
- Accelerated symptoms tied to aging, including brain shrinkage and worsened symptoms tied to arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis
- Increased chronic pain, including neck and back pain, headaches, joint pain and muscle pain
- Metabolic dysfunction and potentially weight gain, since cortisol can trigger accumulation of dangerous belly fat and worsen cravings for fat, salt and sugar
- Higher risk for a variety of digestive disorders and symptoms, like ulcers, a bloated stomach, cramping, constipation and diarrhea
- Trouble sleeping, and then irritability and fatigue as a result
- Depression symptoms, such as feelings of helplessness and lack of control
- Becoming more accident-prone
- Not being able to plan for the future or make decisions
- Experiencing increased for a number of health problems, potentially including diabetes, heart attack, heart disease and stroke. Stress increases your heart rate and force, constricts and damages your arteries, and can lead to inflammation.
- Worsened asthma symptoms
- Reduced sexual desire and erectile dysfunction in men
- Menstrual changes in women, including worsened PMS and irregular periods
- Skin/hair conditions like eczema, hair loss, acne and rashes
A high percentage of Americans consistently worry about money, job security and the political climate in the U.S. The American Psychological Association published research focused on the “Most Common Sources of Stress.” They found that:
- 63% worry about the future of our nation
- 62% worry about money
- 61% worry about work
- 57% worry about the political climate
- 51% worry about violence and crime
According to some research, two of the biggest drivers of suicidal thoughts and attempts are job loss and social isolation.
When you go through an acute/short-term crisis, your actions normally wind end up reversing many of the stress-related processes described above. You can essentially either fight or flee and resolve the problem — then take comfort in contact with loved ones or satisfaction in your abilities. You might dispel adrenaline through pacing or some other soothing effort to restore balance.
Life today, however, doesn’t often offer us the opportunity to enact a full stress response and resolution. Instead, we operate as if we’re in a constant, low-grade state of emergency, with no real end in sight.
How do you know if you have chronic stress? Ask yourself if you’re dealing with the most common stress-related symptoms (like mood changes, trouble sleeping, pain/tension — including tension headaches — and so on). Are you feeling things are out of your control and that the future is hopeless?
If you can relate to many of the symptoms above, it might be time to speak to a therapist, or at least to rethink how you’re handling your current situation. If stress has led to specific symptoms such as breakouts, GI issues and chronic pain, talk to your doctor about tests that can determine the underlying causes and come up with a holistic treatment plan together.
A therapist, or even your primary care giver or a functional/naturopathic doctor, can help you manage stress with coping strategies such as mindfulness, breathing exercises, journaling, physical exercises and tools for changing your thought patterns.
Plenty of research has found that stress management and relaxation techniques can help you become more able to adapt to stressful events, more efficient in functioning during stressful times and better able to recover from stress.
Ultimately, chronic stress treatment and recovery time depends on how severely someone is stressed and the coping mechanisms they choose to employ. Based on findings from a large body of research, these are some of the most impactful ways you can cope with chronic stress:
- Get regular exercise, which is one of the best ways to cope with stress and help your body return to homeostasis.
- Make time to engage in pleasantly challenging activities, like reading, exercising, painting, etc.
- Take deep breaths and stretch.
- Get outside and get some sunlight exposure.
- Get plenty of sleep, and even nap if you’re feeling run down.
- Eat a nourishing diet that includes balanced meals emphasizing whole foods (check out this article on eating a diet to manage anxiety symptoms, which includes foods like fish, organic chicken and free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive and coconut oils, and lots of fruits and vegetables).
- Have something to look forward to.There’s evidence demonstrating that positive anticipation can reduce stress and anxiety because it leads to more hopeful anticipatory thoughts, leaving less room for negative thoughts and worry.
- Try mindfulness training, Meditation can serve as one coping mechanism, since it helps to bring your attention to the present and decrease the amount of time you spend worrying about the future.
- Avoid becoming overly absorbed in the 24/7 news cycle.
- Find ways to gain a sense of control, such as by creating a schedule and boundaries for yourself. Stress, anxiety and depression are fueled by feelings of helplessness and overwhelm. Schedule tasks, prioritize and delegate so you’re better able to cope.
- Try journaling, especially “gratitude journaling.” Your thoughts and emotions are the very things that you can learn to control, no matter what happens in your environment. Take a look at your life, and identify what’s causing you stress. Pay attention to your moods, and try to identify the thoughts and beliefs that may be contributing to them.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs, which can actually wind up worsening stress.
- Connect with others to talk about how you’re feeling, even if it’s over the phone, Zoom, etc.
- Listen to your favorite music — and sing along. Listen to music can ease anxiety and even physical pain.
- Try tapping techniques. Also known as the emotional freedom technique, or EFT, can reduce acute or chronic stress and improve sleeping habits.
- Stress is normal, and some kinds of stress are good. However, chronic stress symptoms like indigestion, brain fog, fatigue and trouble sleeping that last many months are not normal.
- Chronic stress can affect every physical and psychological system in the body. Examples of such stressors can include financial worry, work stress and health-related stressors.
- Even if your problems are here to stay for now, you can learn how to better manage stress by incorporating stress-relieving practices into your life. See the list above, which suggests coping mechanisms like exercise, sunlight, gratitude journaling, etc.