Chronic stress – What it is and handling it

There are many different types of stress. In part stress can be triggered immediately in certain situations, and have acute effects on the body. Stress may however also be present in the body over prolonged periods of time, and thereby influence the body over a much longer timespan, and in slightly different ways. In this article, we focus on the chronic stress, as it may in fact be the most destructive stress response. We will briefly outline what chronic stress is, what effects it carries, and then propose ideas of how to deal with chronic stress, as well as how to prevent it from occurring in the future.

What is chronic stress?

Chronic stress is a prolonged exposure to a stressor, that releases the stress hormone cortisol in the body. The purpose of this hormone in the blood stream, is to prepare the body for the possible challenges it faces, and release resources such as stored energy reserves in order to grant power to deal with the stressful situation. It also down-regulates other processes in the body, such as digestion, the immune systems functioning and resting.

The hormone is intended to keep the body fit for the challenge until the stressor resolves itself, yet a problem may occur if the individual does not perceive the stressor to disappear. Then the hormone will remain in the blood stream, and as these processes are quite straining for the body, it will over a prolonged period of time cause negative health effects and a general tear of the body.

What differs chronic stress from acute stress?

There are two major stress responses in the body, when you face a stressful situation. One is immediate, and relates to the adrenaline released in your blood stream, this is what is meant by “acute stress”. A response that is direct, for an acutely stressful situation. This is the classic way of coping with physical demands that stress could imply in a life or death situation.

The other response, however is the release of cortisol, functioning fairly similar, with the preparation for battle, yet cortisol is focused on a larger time scale. It can take up to 15-30 minutes for cortisol to be fully released in the body, and it is therefore much more adjusted for long term stressors, than the initial adrenaline response, that takes merely seconds. Adrenaline gives you a lot of resources quickly, whereas cortisol exerts them over longer time, for a longer use.

The body is self regulating the amounts of cortisol in the stream by sending signals to the brain of how much of the hormone that is currently being released, in order to be able to relax once needed. However, the problem is if the perceived stressor remains, and you feel that you constantly have it hanging over you. In that sense, the slow release of cortisol will remain present in your system, and over time inhibit some executive functions, and causing a wide array of problems.

You will not get the sudden rush of energy as adrenaline would give you, so you might not be equally aware of the fact that you are stressed, but it will slowly drain your energy, keeping your body slightly tense, not giving you the possibility to relax and becoming a strain over time.

For this reason, chronic stress is extremely important to deal with. As the adrenal responses to stress passes quickly, the body never exhibits enough time to tax itself on resources, however chronic stress keeps constantly draining these resources. For health reasons, this is preferably avoided.

What are the effects of chronic stress?

There are quite a few negative effects of chronic stress. Such as:

  • Elevated blood pressure over time

  • Increased sensitivity to pain

  • Impaired memory function

  • Inhibited immune system

  • Negative thinking

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Aggression

  • Lack of motivation

  • Severe weight gain or loss

  • Cardiovascular disease

In long term, chronic stress may also affect the body’s way of properly eliciting stress responses, as the body is used to being stressed all the time, it will not react accordingly. Most of these symptoms are based on the constant, yet quite timid, pressure that is put on the body by an over active presence of cortisol during chronic stress.

As this is relative to each individual, you may not experience some or any of these symptoms, yet it is important to be aware of the potential harmful effects that chronic stress may have. It is a big deal, and it needs to be addressed in order for a healthier physical, and mental state in the long run.

So how do you deal with chronic stress?

When dealing with chronic stress, it is important to figure out why the body is constantly issuing a stress response. The problem might lie in the fact that there is a particular thing, or situation, that is keeping you stressed. The basic, is then to first and foremost identify your stressor.

Chronic stress may be hard to change, as it is often related to stressors you have little or no influence over. There are a few simple techniques to cope with these things, such as exercise to release stress hormones, keeping a healthy diet, getting regular sleep and taking time off for yourself, yet this is very focused on treating the symptoms of the stress.

The main thing to focus on when it comes to chronic stress, is rather the mindset. If you are constantly stressed out over something, you might need to restructure the way you think about it. Is it really that important? Is it really that bad? And would it be the end of the world? You might not be able to change the particular stressor, but your outlook on it could change everything. If it helps you to relax, and worry less, then your chronic stress levels will go down, and you will find time to relax and consequently reduce the levels of chronic stress that are draining your system.

If you are interested in more ways of coping with stress, or stress management in general, check out these articles: Coping with stress, coping mechanisms & stress management techniques.

How do you prevent chronic stress in the future?

You can prevent chronic stress in the future on many levels. Try to minimize the elements in your life that cause chronic type of stress, such as not worrying over things that are out of your control. Focus instead, on the things you can control, and influence. And try to keep a positive outlook on life. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, and keep in mind what is really important in your life. Is worrying over something, at work for instance, worth the health risks, in the long run?

Take active steps to make sure your health always comes first, and you will reduce the risk of chronic stress in your life. Take chronic stress serious, if you feel you’re having problems, try to deal with them immediately. Life is too short, and being constantly stressed out, is not going to make it any longer, or more enjoyable.

To summarize the key points of chronic stress:

  • Chronic stress is a state of prolonged exposure to stress hormones, causing negative health effects
  • Chronic stress differs from acute stress in the way that it is constantly, and slowly, putting strain on your body, inhibiting your ability to relax and recharge
  • Chronic stress is related to a lot of negative health effects, both mentally and physically
  • In order to deal with chronic stress, you can change the way you think about stressors, as well as treating the symptoms through living a healthy life
  • Take chronic stress seriously, and don’t let things out of your control occupy your mind. Orient your focus towards the things you can manage, and keep a positive outlook.

If you want to read more about stress and chronic stress, you can check out our free online course called the Stress Management Blueprint.