Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
Chronic stress can be devastating for your overall health. If you have been diagnosed with chronic stress or believe you have many of the symptoms, you need to take steps to stress control.
Define Chronic Stress
Essentially, chronic stress results from repetitive exposure to certain situations, leading to a release of stress hormones. The repetition aspect makes it different from other kinds of stress, including acute stress, where there is an element of unpredictability.
Chronic Stress Reaction
Chronic stress reactions are far from sophisticated in a modern sense; they’re primeval. The natural stress response activates the hypothalamus region of your brain and because it does not appreciate the complexity of the modern human situation. Imagine a biological alarm sounding at all times within your body, even when you are asleep. The complex neurological and hormonal signals activate your adrenal glands, and you find yourself swimming in adrenaline and cortisol – without so much as an actual physical threat manifesting in front of you.
Chronic Stress Response
When there is a chronic stress response, adrenaline works to increase cardiovascular activity. As the blood pressure goes up, the amount of energy (sugar) within the blood also boosts cortisol. This causes your immunity to take a backseat, and the repair function gets a boost. The body also expects your brain to stay active and consume more and more of the glucose. Eventually, the digestive system begins to suffer because the hormones have effectively suppressed digestive activity. For that matter, the reproductive system also takes a backseat, and stress makes it difficult for the individual to relax sexually.
Chronic Stress Disorder
Such a disruption over the long-term, characterized by overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can debilitate impact. Chronic stress can cause severe health problems, such as:
- Heart disease
- Sleeping disorders
- Digestive issues
- Weight gain
- Memory impairment, together with difficulty concentrating.
The Five Symptoms Of Chronic Stress
The good news is that if chronic stress can be caught early enough, interventions can help minimize the impact it has on one’s health. These five warning signs of chronic stress can help you determine whether it’s time to get help for your chronic stress.
1. Difficulty in Coherent Thought and Trouble Concentrating
One of the first things that stress, particularly chronic stress, does to us is to interfere in our thoughts.
- We find ourselves indulging in obsessive patterns of thought, for example, certain events to transpire or for something in our life to change
- It’s common to have difficulty concentrating on the issue or the project at hand
- All of a sudden, we find ourselves disorganized
- Anxiety begins to buildup
- We begin avoiding certain situations or people, knowingly or unknowingly
- There’s a feeling of losing control
- Chronic stress can even lead to forgetfulness
2. A Propensity Toward Addictive Behaviors
We may find ourselves wanting to give in to addictive behaviors. It may or may not even be important or interesting, but the compulsion is quite strong. You may find yourself binge eating in the hopes of making everything go away. If not food, you may find yourself indulging in drugs or other unhealthy addictive behaviors. Some of these behaviors can go unnoticed, such as biting nails, biting lips, or the inner lining in your mouth, grinding teeth, etc.
3. Agitation In Sleep
Having chronic stress often means not sleeping well at all. You could be diagnosed with insomnia, or you could simply find yourself uncomfortable when trying to sleep. This could mean tossing and turning all night and could even mean disturbing dreams or nightmares. A lot of effort and time may go into falling asleep, only to find yourself waking up easily or frequently, affecting the length or the quality of deep sleep you get each night.
4. General Health Problems
Chronic stress weakens the immune system. A weak immune system means you may fall sick frequently, remain sick for longer, or find your symptoms flared up in due course. Other health problems associated with having chronic stress include headaches, chest pains, stomach aches, muscular cramping, and even a reduced sex drive.
5. Emotionality And Mood
Many individuals dealing with chronic stress experience lower energy levels and are commonly overwhelmed even in normal circumstances. Individuals suffering from chronic stress may find themselves unable to become interested in social activities. They deal with pessimism, lower levels of enjoyment in general, and find themselves easily upset. At times, chronic stress sufferers may exhibit higher levels of irritability or lash out in anger.
The Definition Of Prolonged Stress
It’s no surprise that modern life’s fast pace causes us to experience stress from time to time. Therefore, it becomes important to properly define prolonged stress. Prolonged stress has very little to do with the duration to which an individual is exposed to a particular stressor. It has everything to do with their response to such emotional pressure, even long after such events have passed or greatly diminished in importance. In other words, prolonged stress is determined by one’s mind’s functioning rather than the circumstances.
Negative Impact On Your Health
If chronic stress is bad for you, what are the negative impacts on your health? Most of the health issues associated with chronic stress stem from our stress response system’s constant activation. There is a growing consensus among scientists that our body was never designed to stay under constant or repetitive activation against stressful stimuli. Staying in this state will result in wear and tear – both psychologically and physically. In fact, it is believed that many bodily systems may begin to break down, with the stress response system constantly activated.
More and more research links chronic stress to the occurrence and the worsening of heart disease, hypertension (which is high blood pressure), buildup of cholesterol levels, Type II diabetes, and depression. However, some people are particularly at risk – for instance, individuals with poor genes, exposing them to aggravated heart disease risks, diabetes, hypertension, etc. Imagine if you were already dealing with another unhealthy lifestyle habit. So if your circumstances left you with a shorter health buffer, the addition of chronic stress could potentially be the proverbial last straw.
Keep in mind that the stress response system exercises command and control over all other bodily systems. With stress, your body is in “fight or flight” mode. Therefore, your body will experience a very high heart rate, increasing blood pressure to match, high blood sugar levels to make enough energy available at a moment’s notice – while also bringing down your immune response. It is quickly apparent that your body is trying to prepare for a fight at its own expense. The concept of chronic stress already excludes the flight mode because that is how you find yourself in repetitive situations. The inertia of deregulation takes over the whole body. When this deregulation goes out of control, it starts bringing down bodily systems one by one, in a domino effect.
The impact that the cardiovascular function takes is enormous. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is centrally important to the balance between salt and water in our bodies. Once stress hormone levels exceed their normally expected values, they go on to impact the precarious salt/water proportionality needed for the heart to work properly. If the misbalance continues for an extended period, the likelihood of cardiovascular disease increases significantly.
The more stressed you find yourself on an average basis, the more difficulty you’ll have resisting unhealthy lifestyle habits. Consuming alcohol, indulging in tobacco use, preferring a diet rich in saturated fats, the resulting weight gain, and decreased physical activity – will all lead to an increase in the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, also known as “bad cholesterol.” Simultaneously, your “good cholesterol” numbers – the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – will decrease. This occurs because cholesterol is the most prominent ingredient of cortisol, your stress hormone. Chronic stress works to directly increase your cholesterol levels to help your body create more cortisol.
Type II Diabetes
Research has shown that with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol levels, insulin secretion decreases. Insulin is used in the body to help store energy for future use. When your body is experiencing stress, it is not looking to store energy for future use; it expects to spend it quickly. As a result, the body primes itself for more and more sugar to run through its system, fueling all of the body’s systems, resulting in high blood sugar. Stress hormones doubly ensure that the receptors willfully ignore the message in the little bit of insulin remaining to lower the blood sugar numbers. This becomes especially problematic with chronic stress. For instance, even if you were stressed after the meeting at work and your mind understands that no physical conflict is forthcoming, the body does not keep up on the intellectual plane. The body would prepare for a primitive recourse (or “fight”), reducing your insulin so that your blood sugar remains high. This is why Type II Diabetes is a major concern for most individuals faced with chronic stress.
Weight Gain And Obesity
Whereas insulin may work to bring down sugar levels, cortisol is the precursor for refueling. This is because your stress response has to ensure proper energy balance for your protection at all times – in a primitive way. When we experience chronic stress for weeks, cortisol will make it easier for such energy to be quickly sourced. This means cortisol will enable energy storage in easily accessible areas in the human body, including, most prominently of all, the gut. As unhealthy as that, maybe, that’s where the body will have the easiest access to all the energy it imagines using in the short term. This, in turn, appears as weight gain around the midsection.
Chronic Stress Can Affect Anyone
The point is that our bodies are highly complex systems, with heavily intertwined and interdependent subsystems. For the healthy functioning of all of these systems, there needs to be a delicate balance. While some individuals are more prone to stress (and it’s adverse health conditions) than others, stress can affect anyone. Find out if you’re at risk for an illness related to stress by taking this short test. If you happen to believe that something has been stressing you out over the past and is likely to continue to do so, see what you can do about it. Plan out the alternatives, figure out the win-loss scenario for each alternative. If you are struggling to deal with the stress yourself, get help by talking to a licensed counselor.