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What is chronic stress? 

Stress is a normal, human function that protects us from danger and fosters our survival as a species. Acute stressors happen on a daily basis and for some, certain happenstance life events are more stressful than others. Traffic jams, running late, public speaking, throwing a party or even grocery shopping can provide some level of stress for human beings.

When the body’s stress response is set off by one such event, it releases stress hormones known as cortisol and adrenaline. Almost all of us have experienced moments of acute stress that wax and wane on a moment-to-moment basis. Stress is ultimately a natural reaction to difficult or unfamiliar situations, and is not always unhealthy. For those without chronic stress, these physical symptoms will fade when the stressful situation or event has passed and our cortisol levels return to normal. 

Chronic stress is different from acute stress in that it is recurring and prolonged, impacting one’s mental and physical health. Stress shifts from acute to chronic when an individual experiences prolonged feelings of pressure, strain or is overwhelmed constantly. 

The stress hormone, cortisol, is released at a consistent pace, rather than in bursts. Typical stress management practices like deep breathing, relaxation techniques and mindfulness don’t often help reduce chronic stress levels. The nervous system can remain in this fight-or-flight response pattern leading to all sorts of health problems long-term. 

What causes chronic stress?

Chronic stress differs from acute stress in that it is a lingering, pervasive feeling of being under pressure or overwhelmed. Living with chronic stress can have severe mental and physical health complications. The body experiences stressful situations so frequently that it doesn’t have a chance to activate its relaxation response so the mind and body may recover. Cortisol levels remain high and one feels the effects of stress each moment of the day.

There are a whole host of broad issues that can cause chronic stress, including world events, economic fluctuations and political conflict. However, each individual’s experience with chronic stress is often influenced, in large part, by something unique to their lives. Instances that cause chronic stress usually fall under the following categories:

  • Relationship stress. Relationships often bring about so much joy, however, when they turn unhealthy or are put under pressure, they can cause chronic stress. How one relates to his or her spouse, partner, children, parents, co-workers or neighbors can spur chronic stress, especially when relations are rocky, intolerant or exhibit emotionally or physically abusive tendencies.  
  • Emotional stress. Dealing with a family member’s illness, economic hardships and other emotionally-draining events can cause chronic stress. Living in a heightened state of awareness, sadness, angst or worry increases the likelihood of one to experience chronic stress. 
  • Traumatic stress. Traumatic stress can occur as a result of many different acutely-stressful, intense situations. An automobile accident, domestic abuse, a bike wreck, job loss, the death of a family member and so many more life events can cause lingering PTSD and thus, chronic stress. 
  • Location-related stress. Our environments play a large role in our daily moods. Hectic cities, pollution, loud noises, crowded offices or unsanitary public spaces can induce chronic stress, especially when one is forced to occupy a stressful location day in and day out. 
  • Work-related stress. As one of the more common causes of chronic stress, work-related stress shifts from acute to chronic when feelings of pressure are pervasive. 

What are the symptoms of chronic stress?

Symptoms of chronic stress run the gamut of mental and physical ailments. The longer one lives under the weight of chronic stress, the higher the chance of developing long-term health issues. 

Chronic stress is so dangerous because it affects both the mental and physical aspects of health. Our mental health and physical health are tied inextricably together, and thus, when we emotionally suffer, our energy, health and overall well-being do as well. 

What are the physical symptoms of chronic stress?

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of focus
  • Decreased energy
  • Feeling of helplessness
  • Frequently ill or trouble recovering from mild illnesses
  • Body aches and pains that are unrelated to physical exertion
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems
  • Back pain

What are the mental symptoms of chronic stress?

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Having difficulty relaxing 
  • Mental fatigue or fogginess 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Becoming easily agitated or irritable 
  • Emotional avoidance 
  • Feeling overwhelmed or out of control 

These symptoms can carry over and begin affecting our personal lives, including negatively impacting what brings us joy. Relationships may suffer as well as hobbies, interests, community engagement and work performance. Additionally, larger health issues may arise like hypertension, joint pain, high cholesterol and even heart attack.

How do the symptoms of chronic stress impact life? 

These symptoms can carry over and begin affecting our personal lives and overall well being. Consider the symptoms of fatigue and irritability. When these occur due to acute stressors like a traffic jam or missed deadline, you can recover relatively quickly. Once the automobile congestion releases or you turn in your late project, the stress typically clears. However, when these symptoms are caused from chronic stress, like a toxic relationship or high pressure work situation, these symptoms bleed over and begin to impact daily life. 

Chronic stress can become cyclical. Fatigue and irritability, for example, can cause one to give up beloved hobbies or make excuses to skip out on social gatherings. A short temper can exacerbate strained relationships, stress others around you out and increase feelings of fatigue at the end of the day. This wheel keeps turning, eventually impacting your physical health. 

What health issues are caused by chronic stress?

  • Weight gain. Small weight fluctuations are typically normal as we age, however, gaining a large amount of weight in a short time due to chronic stress can negatively impact our health. Symptoms like insomnia, body aches and fatigue can cause one to indulge in sugary foods, alcohol and skip out on exercise, leaning into more of a sedentary existence. Obesity can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and more. 
  • Weight loss. Antithetically, weight loss can be just as troubling when one dips under what is considered a healthy body weight. Chronic stress symptoms like IBS and nausea prevent many from eating and retaining necessary nutrients. Extreme weight loss may cause irregular menstrual cycles, fatigue, lack of confidence, muscle loss and bone density loss. 
  • Substance abuse. Those dealing with chronic stress and its myriad symptoms can begin to rely on alcohol and other substances to cope. This can be a slippery slope, as alcohol and many other recreational drugs exacerbate anxiety, depression, lethargy, nausea and irritability. Plus, alcohol, cigarettes and some recreational drugs contain known carcinogens. 
  • Compromised immune system. Our immune systems need adequate sleep and nutrients to function properly. Chronic stress leads to being run down all the time, weakening the immune system and allowing us to fall ill more frequently. 
  • Self-harm. A severe and sometimes life-threatening condition, self-harm caused by chronic stress can manifest in many ways. Ranging from suicidal tendencies to self-mutilation practices like hair plucking, nail picking or even eating disorders, self-harm runs the gamut and can drastically impact one’s overall physical health. 
  • Decreased libido. Sex is known to release endorphins and foster intimate connections with a romantic partner. A low sex drive due to chronic stress can disrupt our marriage or relationship and make us feel isolated, alone and unhappy. 
  • Hypertension. Also known as high blood pressure, hypertension can cause chest pain and may eventually lead to a heart attack. 
  • Skin diseases. Chronic stress can cause numerous skin disorders and diseases, including acne, psoriasis, eczema and localized breakouts
  • Stomach ulcers. These bleeding lesions in the stomach lining impact our entire digestive system. Diets may suddenly be limited to foods that don’t upset the ulcers and sometimes prescription medication is needed to quell the flare up. 
  • Depression. Prolonged periods of depression due to chronic stress can cause a host of other physical ailments including weight gain, body aches, mental fatigue and more. Many people experience actual pain in various places throughout the body because of depression. This makes it hard to perform daily tasks that keep our bodies healthy, including routine hygiene practices, exercise and eating healthfully. 
  • Development of thyroid conditions. The thyroid is responsible for a host of routine bodily functions, including releasing hormones, regulating metabolism and giving us energy. Hyperthyroidism may cause insomnia, weight loss, heart arrhythmias and irritability. Hypothyroidism is a slowing down of the thyroid’s functions, which prompts a slower metabolism, weight gain, lethargy, constipation, dry skin and sensitivity to cold.  

What are treatments for chronic stress? 

There are three main approaches to chronic stress treatment – psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and medicinal intervention. Each has merit and, depending on the recommendation of your doctor and psychiatrist, you may need to incorporate treatments from each. Holistic changes, like leading an active lifestyle, medication or therapy may help in reducing stress and minimizing the symptoms from chronic stress.

  • Psychotherapy. Therapy takes on a variety of forms and, depending on the cause of your chronic stress, different types of therapy may work better than others. 
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
    • Eye-movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
    • Hypnosis therapy. 
    • Integrative therapy. 
    • Alternative therapies like aromatherapy, massage, Reiki, and the like may be an option to explore under the supervision of your primary care doctor. 
  • Medication. Depending on symptoms experienced from chronic stress, the doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, 
    • SSRIs. These selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are a common treatment for depression. They prevent your blood cells from absorbing some serotonin, leaving more of it in the brain. 
    • CNS depressant. Central nervous system depressants encompass a variety of sedatives, tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medication that slow the body down, instead of speeding it up. 
    • BuSpar. Also known as buspirone, this prescription anti-anxiety medication may help individuals remain calm and stay focused. 
    • Beta blockers. These slow down the heart rate and can help lower blood pressure levels. 
    • Nutritional supplements. Talk with your holistic doctor about how you can use nutrition as medicine to cure your conditions, if possible. Your doctor will be able to recommend the proper diet and vitamin and mineral supplements that may help you deal with chronic stress and promote overall health.. 
  • Lifestyle changes to manage chronic stress. Lifestyle changes can be incredibly impactful in minimizing chronic stress and its symptoms. Below are a few lifestyle changes you can make to minimize stress.
  • Incorporate meditation into your daily routine. 
  • Lead an active lifestyle as much as possible. 
  • Build a solid community and strong network for social support during times of hardship. 
  • Maintain a healthy diet to keep blood sugar levels stable. 
  • Find an outlet or hobby, like pottery, painting, cycling or hiking. 
  • Stay away from substances that increase your stress or anxiety, like alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs. 

How can you recover from chronic stress?

Visit a lifestyle medicine doctor to dig into what practices you may adopt in order to treat chronic stress through lifestyle changes. 

  • Exercise. Moving the body and increasing our heart rates causes the release of endorphins. Endorphins boost our overall mood, give us energy and confidence. 
  • Mindfulness practices. Meditation, yoga, journaling and breathwork can help keep one grounded and release daily pressures.  
  • Diet. Keeping blood sugar levels consistent allows the body to remain stabilized. 
  • Weight loss. Lowering stress on our bodies’ physical systems can make us feel better mentally. Additionally, losing weight decreases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and a host of other health problems. 
  • Take time off. Reduce the usage of technology, including phones, TVs, computers, even your apple watch. Opting to spend more time away from social media and the news. 
  • Get outside. No matter where you live, go for a walk to spend some time with nature. In Japan, the practice of Forest Bathing is used to actively reduce stress and draw individuals into the present moment. 
  • Read a book. Self-help books about stress management can offer other useful tips for coping with daily triggers. Additionally, reading a thriller, mystery or even a fun romance novel can flex our creative muscles and move us away from screen time. 
  • Explore spiritual practices. Connecting with someone or something beyond the secular world has been shown in a variety of studies to decrease stress. Many spiritual practices and their corresponding books offer insight into living a slower, meaningful life.

Chronic stress is serious

Homo sapiens evolved slowly, over a long period of time, to fit within an environment that also evolved gradually. As industry exploded and cities began to expand, life began moving at an alarming rate. Evolutionarily speaking, we don’t yet have internal security measures to mitigate the negative effects of too much screen time, social networking, living in polluted environments and the like.

A majority of us experience acute stress on a daily basis. However, the numbers of those experiencing chronic stress are on the rise and the healthcare landscape is changing to address this. Pay attention to what your  body is feeling and seek medical help if stress begins to impact your overall happiness and well-being. 

With the help of your holistic doctor, a mental health professional and by making some personal lifestyle changes, you can get out of stress’s grip. It does take a concerted effort and a willingness to change daily behaviors. Use UCF Health’s patient portal and online scheduling tool to find a knowledgeable, compassionate doctor near you.