Chronic Stress: What It Does to Your Health and How to Get It under Control

Chronic Stress: What It Does to Your Health and How to Get It under Control

I am in the process of recovering from chronic stress. It has been two years and one month since my recovery journey formally began, and I’m getting better little-by-little, day-by-day, but I still have a long road of recovery ahead of me.

I wish I had known what chronic stress was and how destructive it would be on my mind, body, and spirit before I allowed it to take possession of my life. Had I known, I might have made some different lifestyle choices and set strict boundaries to ensure my health and wellness remained a priority.

Tap here to read more about my story with chronic stress and how I overcame it.

Part of the reason I started this blog is to raise awareness about chronic stress, chronic illness, and mental illness, as well as to share information about how to live with these debilitating conditions and how to return back to a place of mental health and wellness.

I hope you find the information on my blog helpful for your own healing journey. However, please note, I am not a licensed therapist or physician and, therefore, caution you to use my blog as a guideline only. Please consult with a licensed practitioner to assist you with your specific medical needs and concerns.

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural part of daily life. According to most definitions, stress is the body’s response to the pressures of a situation or a life event. These stress events can vary, such as our response to the death of a loved one, moving to a new home, the birth of a child, a car accident, etc.

In fact, our bodies are naturally equipped to handle stressful situations. Certain processes within our bodies activate what are called “stress hormones” (commonly known as cortisol and adrenaline) and circulate them throughout our bodies to help us respond appropriately to the stressful situation we are faced with.

What happens to our bodies when the stress hormones are activated?

When the stress hormones activate, our bodies become “superhuman,” allowing us to do things we might not normally be able to do. For example, you may have heard stories of people being able to lift something extremely heavy after a stressful event occurs, such as large debris after a building collapse.

Okay, so we don’t actually become superhuman. What really happens within our bodies is this: Our blood pressure, breathing and heart rate increase; glucose is released into the bloodstream to give us a burst of energy; digestion, growth, reproduction and immune system functions are suppressed to conserve energy; and blood flow to the skin decreases while our tolerance for pain increases (Levy, “Are Covid…”).

This state is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight response” or the “survival instinct.” All living beings—human and animal—are naturally hardwired to respond in this way. It is what helps us survive threatening situations, such as disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, etc. When we go into the “fight-or-flight” mode, we are able to act appropriately as the situation requires.

What happens if we are faced with one stressful situation after another?

Most of the time, our bodies will return to a normal state approximately 90 minutes after the stressful event occurs (Levy, “Are Covid…”) and we can resume life as normal. Unfortunately, however, more and more people today are reporting that stressful situations are becoming an ongoing problem and that they are living in extended periods of the “fight-or-flight response.”

This period of extended stress is called “chronic stress” and it occurs when our bodies are unable to return to a normal state after a stressful event occurs. Over a short period of time, stress is generally not harmful to our health, but if left unresolved over an extended period of time, stress can cause serious health concerns and complications.

These health concerns and complications include (but are not limited to) (Levy, “Are Covid…”):

  • Increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain or obesity, mental disorders, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, and/or cancer;
  • Reduced brain function, particularly memory, learning, communication, and/or concentration;
  • Increased risk of addictions and unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse, over- or under-eating, and/or binging on unhealthy foods or spending large amounts of time watching TV, playing video games, or scrolling through social media feeds;
  • Accelerated symptoms tied to aging, such as brain shrinkage, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and/or osteoporosis;
  • Chronic pain, such as migraines and/or joint and muscle pain.

What triggers chronic stress?

Did you know? Recent studies show that Millennials (or “Generation Z”) are reporting the highest rates of anxiety, loneliness and depression, and are considered to be the most stressed-out age group in many industrialized nations (Levy, “Always Stressed?…”).

Chronic Stress: What It Does to Your Health and How to Get It under Control
Photo Credit: Canva

Many factors—such as political or economic turmoil, violence (e.g. wars, terrorism, mass shootings, racial tensions, etc.), poor finances or affordable living standards, and/or poor health or limited access to affordable healthcare—can contribute to the increased risk of chronic stress in adults between the ages of 18-49 (Levy, “Always Stressed?…”).

Those who struggle with chronic stress are often (but not always) dealing with other mental ailments, such as anxiety, depression and/or other mood disorders or mental illnesses. Sometimes these mental ailments, such as anxiety and depression, are triggered or worsened by certain life events and/or circumstances that a person has been unable to process or learn to cope with.

These circumstances and/or events can include (but are not limited to) (Levy, “Are Covid…”):

  • Feeling overwhelmed with everyday responsibilities inside the home and/or at work;
  • Financial worries over job security, ability to pay the bills, and/or housing affordability;
  • Emotional distress after the death of a loved one;
  • Trauma from a past abusive situation, whether inflicted on the individual or witnessed by the individual;
  • Feeling socially isolated, such as during a global pandemic when gatherings are restricted or limited;
  • Health problems, including injuries that lead to chronic pain and/or a serious health diagnosis that limits daily functioning;
  • Anxiety about major life changes, such as moving to a new city or starting a new job;
  • Having a negative, pessimistic, rigid, or perfectionist mindset that can create conflict with oneself and/or with others of a different mindset;
  • Living with guilt and/or regret for poor past decisions or mistakes.

How do you know if you’re experiencing chronic stress?

The American Institute of Stress lists fifty common signs and symptoms of stress, some of which include:

  • Frequent headaches or migraines
  • Muscle aches and spasms that aren’t a result of exercise
  • Frequent faintness or dizziness
  • Rashes, itches, or hives that appear on the skin without explanation
  • Burning sensation in the stomach, cramping or nausea
  • Severe constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Elevated heart rate and pulse, even when stationary
  • Increased irritability, edginess, frustration, anger, or open hostility
  • Inability to fall asleep, waking up in the night and staying awake, frequent nightmares
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Memory loss or forgetfulness
  • Frequent crying spells and/or panic attacks
  • Reduced work efficiency or productivity
  • Inability to relax or “turn off” at the end of the day
  • Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue
  • Excessive consumption of unhealthy foods, alcohol or drugs, TV, social media

Tap here to read the full list of signs and symptoms.

How do you get chronic stress under control?

Chronic Stress: What It Does to Your Health and How to Get It under Control
Photo Credit: Canva

If you are experiencing chronic stress, it’s important to figure out as soon as possible what may be triggering your stress and find ways to cope with it or remove the stressor from your life (if this is possible).

Don’t try to push the problem under the rug, so-to-speak. No matter what you do to suppress it, the problem won’t go away. It will keep resurfacing again and again, and will harm your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health in the process.

The longer you put it off and pretend it isn’t there, the longer it will take for you to heal and recover from its negative side effects.

Tap here to read about my own fight with chronic stress and how I finally overcame it.

Once you have identified your trigger(s), it’s time to do the work to get your stress under control, either by removing the trigger from your life or by learning how to live with and cope with it.

The methods that have helped me in my own recovery process include:

  • Talking to my doctor and taking medications, as prescribed;
  • Talking to a therapist to help me identify my triggers and establish coping mechanisms to deal with stress;
  • Exercising daily for a minimum of thirty minutes;
  • Spending time in nature;
  • Giving self-care top priority in my life;
  • Taking time to engage in creative activities I enjoy, such as cooking, crafting, reading, puzzling, gardening, writing, etc;
  • Going to bed on time and setting an alarm to get up at the same time everyday;
  • Taking a nap when I feel run down;
  • Scheduling meal times and eating healthy foods (this includes limiting my intake of salty, sugary, fatty, alcoholic, and/or caffeinated foods/beverages);
  • Unplugging from social media, TV, video games, and/or other electronics at least once a week;
  • Blogging or journaling about my struggles with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain;
  • Connecting and engaging with others who have similar struggles and experiences;
  • Setting boundaries with myself, family and friends, and employer (e.g. setting limits on how long I browse social media, asking family and friends to not call or text after a certain time at night or activating the do-not-disturb feature on my phone, eating lunch away from my desk, taking coffee breaks, and/or saying no to working late);
  • Prayer and/or meditation

Tap here to read other methods you can employ to help you get chronic stress under control.

In Summary

Stress is normal and plays a vital role in our survival instinct; however, excessive (chronic) stress can lead to serious health complications if left unchecked for longer periods of time. That is why it is vital that you recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and deal with it as soon as you possibly can. Ignoring it will only make your symptoms and side effects worse.

There are many ways to cope with stress, as indicated above, and you can create a system that works for you. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your doctor and/or a therapist to help you take the first steps to achieving a stress-free life.

Did you find this post helpful? Comment below to share what coping methods you currently use to help you de-stress.
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