Chronic stress can come from a variety of life situations, like a new baby, financial stress, or health concerns like COVID-19.
Chronic stress can show up in different ways. Over time, it can lead to some serious effects on health and well-being.
There are steps you can take to reduce your levels of stress and ease the negative effects of chronic stress on your health.
Do you feel stressed out more often than not? If so, you’re not alone. Most Americans report feeling stressed about a wide range of different concerns. It probably won’t surprise you to know that chronic stress can have a major effect on your physical and psychological well-being. Understanding how stress affects your body is the first step in learning how to manage it and lessen the hold it may have on your life and long-term health.
Chronic stress is when you have an ongoing feeling of being overwhelmed and experience pressure over a long period of time.
There are many possible causes. Any long-term stressful life situation can result in chronic stress. Here are just a few examples from a long list:
Having a baby
Worrying about finances
Being in an unhappy relationship
Working in a toxic environment
Dealing with family pressures
Living with a serious disease
Some stress is healthy and normal — it is the body’s automatic response to a frightening or threatening situation. Stress is how we keep ourselves safe from harm.
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. In this situation, “stress” is what saves your life.
Stress can also improve the way you perform. For example, stress before a big work presentation 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 become chronic when the thing that’s making you stressed does not go away. This can also happen when you go from one short-term stressor to another without any downtime.
Maybe you have ongoing issues that you can’t resolve, like financial or health worries. Or perhaps you have a job with ongoing stressful projects and deadlines. You may not feel safe in your home or relationship. You may have recurring worries over threats like COVID-19, mass shootings, or climate change. In fact, ongoing worries about anything — rational or not — can lead to chronic stress.
Whatever the cause, your body exists in a constant state of alarm. Eventually, this takes its toll on your body and your mental health.
Certain situations can increase your risk for chronic stress, for example:
You have financial stresses such as debt, or can’t pay your rent or bills.
You have a demanding workplace or job, such as a high workload or long hours.
You have relationship struggles.
You’re a parent with young or dependent children (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic).
You spend a lot of time on social media.
You don’t get enough sleep or you don’t wake up feeling refreshed.
You don’t have a strong support system.
Chronic stress can cause a wide range of symptoms that can affect all parts of the body. Symptoms from stress can feel vague, meaning they can be difficult to pinpoint. And that may make it hard to identify the cause.
Stress symptoms may include:
Pain (anywhere) from muscle tension
Increased heart rate
Shortness of breath
Low sex drive
When stress becomes chronic and these symptoms are ongoing, they can start to affect all areas of your life, such as your:
Stress doesn’t just cause the symptoms above. There’s evidence that long-term stress can worsen ongoing health issues or increase your risk for even more serious health conditions. These include increased risk of:
Autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis
Chronic stress can also have a big effect on your mental health. And it can cause new mental health conditions as well as worsen a current mental health condition. This includes:
If you can manage your stress, you can reduce the impact of these conditions or prevent them.
In certain situations, some people can treat chronic stress by dealing with the underlying situation that’s causing it. For example, if you’re working too many late hours, you can work with your boss or team to restructure your responsibilities and 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’s important to take care of yourself so that you’re better able to live with your stress.
People are more likely to make poor lifestyle choices when they’re stressed. For example, you may eat more unhealthy foods, get less sleep, or use alcohol excessively. But when you recognize your symptoms of stress, you can make lifestyle choices to better cope.
Here are some strategies that may help to treat chronic stress and help you care your yourself:
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 healthcare provider or a therapist: Your healthcare provider 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. But when you understand the purpose of stress and how to manage it, you can experience greater health and well-being.
Chronic stress is common and can come from many places, including financial worries and the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chronic stress can lead to symptoms that you may not even realize come from stress — such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or headaches. Once you identify chronic stress and its symptoms, you can take steps to manage stress and lessen its impact on your long-term health.
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