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Chronic Stress and Your Body

Aug 5 2021
5 min read
Close-up of stressed out woman laying on couch with her hand in her hair.

Acceptance and perseverance are solutions some often turn to when faced with chronic stress.

This is the way it is. I just have to keep moving ahead. While “toughening up” may be one way to reconcile a constant barrage of stress in your mind, your body can’t be fooled. Chronic stress, that which is tightly woven into the fabric of your daily life, taxes your mind and your body with a burden that compounds over time. What may have once been an occasional sleepless night or passing headache can manifest into chronic pain, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and more.

Understanding Chronic Stress

Simply put, stress is your body’s reaction to any perceived threat. A threat can be physical (a car that cuts you off on the highway) or mental (the nagging worry that you may lose your job). When you encounter a stressor, your brain triggers your nervous system to release certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, into your bloodstream. These hormones send your body into high alert, preparing it to protect itself, which is commonly referred to as fight-or-flight mode.

This makes your blood pressure rise, your heart rate speed and your muscles tighten, among other things. Staying in this mode for a short time isn’t harmful and is normal—it can even be necessary for survival. But it doesn’t take a campsite encounter with a grizzly bear to trigger that response. You can also enter fight or flight mode from more minor frustrations, like long commutes home or a tense work environment. And when those stressors persist, when you never get a break from that elevated state, that’s what leads to chronic stress, turning a helpful physiological response into a potentially harmful one.

Symptoms of too Much Stress

Chronic stress can be difficult to recognize on your own—not just because we often don’t take the time to reflect on how we’re feeling, but because people’s bodies react to it in different ways. The mental and physical effects of chronic stress may creep up slowly or even fly under the radar, or they may announce their presence in the way of symptoms like the following:

  • Chest pains or difficulty breathing
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Back pain or muscle stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Eczema or other skin conditions
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Asthma attacks
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Problems with relationships or social withdrawal
  • Excessive smoking, drug or alcohol use
  • Lack of productivity
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Feeling of hopelessness or apathy

These are some of your body’s warning signs that your chronic stress needs better management and that it is starting to—or has already—made its mark on your overall health. Listen to your body and raise any concerns to your doctor, who can examine your case further and determine if stress—or an unrelated illness with similar symptoms—is the root cause of your problems.

Tips For Managing Stress

We know that this can be easier said than done, but if you are living with chronic stress, it’s important to try taking steps to reduce it—hopefully well before any of the above symptoms appear. Mustering up the will to keep going through tough times may seem admirable in some cases, like when you overtax yourself in the course of caring for an ailing loved one, but staying on your stressful path isn’t worth it if you compromise your health in the process.

These techniques can help you on your way to managing your stress effectively:

Talk to someone. A sympathetic ear can help you feel less anxious and overwhelmed, and expressing your emotions—rather than keeping them bottled up—can keep negative feelings like resentment from building and adding to your stress. Researchers suspect that having a support system to lean on during tough times helps curb the amount of cortisol in your body. You may find it helpful to talk to family, friends, clergy, a doctor or therapist.

Make time for fun. Sign up for an interesting class or activity you’ve been wanting to try. Doing something you enjoy triggers a release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, which can help minimize stress symptoms.

Join a volunteer group or other organization. Studies have shown that helping others reduces activity in the part of the brain responsible for triggering the stress response.

Breathe. Deep breathing reduces heart rate and lowers blood pressure, making it a powerful stress reduction technique that can be done anytime, anywhere. Several times a day, try to take long, slow, deep breaths and then slowly release them. This can help calm your nervous system.

Get moving regularly. Exercise of any kind—at the gym, in a yoga class or playing a game of tag with your kids—is a proven stress buster. Researchers at Southern Methodist University found that people who exercise regularly report fewer symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. Among other benefits, working up a sweat can help you sleep better as well.