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How Does Chronic Stress Affect Your Health?

Tracy Asamoah, MD
Published on March 12, 2020

Are you feeling stressed out? You are not alone. The majority of Americans report feeling stressed about a variety of topics. Unfortunately, chronic stress can have a major impact on your physical and psychological well-being. Knowing the healthy and unhealthy effects of stress and learning how to manage it can help you avoid some of the long-term consequences.

Young woman looking stressed at her laptop at night in her kitchen.
LordHenriVoton/E+ via Getty Images

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s automatic response to a frightening or threatening situation. It is its way of keeping you safe. 

If you see a bear during a hike, your brain sounds an alarm. In response to this alarm, your adrenal glands release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare your body to respond to a threat. For example, adrenaline will trigger your heart and arteries to send more blood to your legs so you can run away from the bear. Your body’s response to stress can save your life!

Stress can even push you to improve in some way. If you have a big work presentation coming up, stress might spur you to spend more time preparing for the big day. Once you give a well-planned presentation, your stress goes away.

Stress can come from many sources in your life. According to the Stress in America Survey 2019 released by the American Psychological Association, worry about mass shootings and healthcare are two of the leading causes of chronic stress in adults.

How does stress become chronic?

Sometimes, your brain perceives a threat that doesn’t immediately go away. These threats aren’t life-threatening but are still serious or worrisome. 

For example, you might have trouble completing work projects on time, leading you to spend more late nights at the office. Even though your body isn’t in immediate danger, your brain sees this as a threat. In this case, the threat is the consequence of failing to meet your job expectations. You might be worried about not finishing your work, getting reprimanded by your boss, and maybe even losing your job. This type of perceived threat can stick around for a long time.

Stress becomes chronic when it doesn’t go away. In other words, the alarm bells don’t turn off. People under chronic stress have stress hormones regularly circulating in their blood. When these hormones stay in your bloodstream for too long, they can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health.

What are the symptoms of chronic stress?

Stress can cause both physical and psychological symptoms. When stress becomes chronic, these symptoms can begin to disrupt your daily life. 

Here are some symptoms you might experience if you have chronic stress:

  • Fatigue

  • Sleep problems

  • Depression

  • Irritability

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Muscle tension

  • Headaches

  • Stomach upset

  • Frequent colds or infections

  • Persistent worry

What are the long-term effects of stress?

Stress puts a great deal of pressure on your body. Over time, it can trigger or worsen many medical and mental health conditions, including:

  • Respiratory problems: Stress can make breathing problems from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse and make you more susceptible to colds.

  • Obesity: Stress can lead to overeating but also cravings for “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar, which can raise the risk of obesity.

  • Immune disorders: Being under stress for long periods of time can exacerbate autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and weaken your immune system.

  • High blood pressure and heart conditions: Prolonged stress can elevate blood pressure and may cause inflammation in the coronary arteries, which can lead to heart attack.

  • Diabetes: Stress causes the release of hormones that can raise blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). Significant life stress may also lead to the onset of diabetes.

  • Depression and anxiety: Studies have found that major stressful events such as divorces, unemployment, and a serious medical diagnosis can trigger major depression as well as anxiety.

  • Drug and alcohol misuse: Alcohol and drugs are commonly used to cope with stress and stress-related conditions such as depression and anxiety.

  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are other ways people may cope with ongoing stress.

  • Cancer: According to the National Cancer Institute, the link between stress and cancer is more indirect and believed to be related to behaviors people engage in to deal with stress, such as smoking, overeating, and drinking alcohol.

If you can manage your stress, you can reduce the impact of these conditions or prevent them. 

How can you manage stress?

You might be able to deal with the situation that’s causing chronic stress directly. For example, if you are working too many late hours, maybe you can talk to your boss about your workload. 

But there are times when you might not be able to get rid of the source of stress. Financial problems, family conflicts, and work demands don’t always have simple solutions. At those times, it is important that you care for yourself so that you are better able to live with your stress. 

When you are under stress, you are more likely to make poor lifestyle choices. For example, you may eat more unhealthy foods, get less sleep or use alcohol excessively. However, when you recognize your symptoms of stress, you can make lifestyle choices to help you cope better. 

Here are some strategies to help you care your yourself when you are feeling stressed out:

  • Exercise: Take a walk or go to the gym. Moving your body can help combat stress.

  • Practice mindfulness: You can practice mindfulness formally through meditation. You can also practice mindfulness informally by simply becoming aware of how you feel physically and emotionally in the present moment.

  • Spend time with others: Healthy relationships with other people can help you cope with stress. Meet a friend for coffee or take a fun class. 

  • Get good quality sleep: Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night is important for your physical and emotional health.

  • Talk to your doctor or a therapist: Your doctor or therapist can help you incorporate strategies to manage stress more effectively in your daily life. 

Stress is an expected part of our busy lives. However, when you understand the purpose of stress and how you can manage it, you can experience greater health and well-being.

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