Community Psychiatry’s Priyanka, MD explains chronic stress and provides some relaxation techniques.
From traffic jams to a health scare to major work deadlines, life brings plenty of stressful moments. Some degree of stress is normal, but if feelings of being overwhelmed persist and affect your mental, emotional or physical health, you may be dealing with a chronic case that requires thoughtful intervention.
Ignoring chronic stress can harm your physical and mental health, suppressing your immune system, raising your blood pressure and heightening feelings of anxiety. Here’s how to recognize the signs of chronic stress and implement simple lifestyle changes to overcome stressful feelings.
What Is Chronic Stress?
Chronic stress can be described as a “perpetual state of overwhelm,” says Nidhi Tewari, a licensed clinical social worker in Richmond, Virginia. While the root causes differ from person to person, trauma, caregiving responsibilities, grief and the pressures of work and home life can contribute to ongoing stress, she says. Conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can exacerbate people’s struggles.
Chronic vs. Acute Stress
“We often think about stress as being inherently bad and that stress should be avoided at all costs,” says Tewari. “However, low levels of stress are healthy for our systems and can be the impetus for motivation and action.” Consider the responsibility of presenting information during a work meeting, for instance. The stress of public speaking may drive you to plan, prepare and practice for the job ahead, ultimately serving in your best interest, Tewari says.
These sporadic moments of tension are what experts often refer to as “acute stress.” This type of stress is short-lived and situational, brought on by high pressure moments, such as a narrowly averted accident or a public performance.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, isn’t tied to a particular moment, says P. Priyanka, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director at Community Psychiatry in Fresno, California. She attributes chronic stress to “either a significant persistent problem or a combination of interchangeable problems over a period of time.”
“Chronic stress is something that lasts much longer than a month,” says Dr. Priyanka. “For example, take the person who lost their job and faced acute stress. If this person is not able to find another job and becomes homeless, they are facing chronic stress that goes beyond the first stressful event.”
Chronic Stress Symptoms
The symptoms of chronic stress can vary from person to person and often fall into one of the following four categories.
Struggling with persistent stress can impact a person’s cognitive functioning, resulting in issues like brain fog and difficulty concentrating. What’s more, research shows that exposure to prolonged stress can also impact memory: Prospective memory, a skill that allows for task-planning and completion, and spatial memory, which is necessary for remembering things like routes and locations, are particularly vulnerable to chronic stress.
Dr. Priyanka notes chronic stress can leave people suffering from mood changes and irritability. They may also find themselves withdrawing socially from others. On a more severe note, when left untreated, chronic stress may develop into a phobia, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress or obsessive compulsive disorder. There is also evidence to suggest that unmanaged stress can hasten the onset of psychiatric disorders like depression and bipolar disorder.
Chronic stress can even take a toll on the body, resulting in low energy, appetite changes, body aches and insomnia. Tewari adds ongoing stress causes a surge in cortisol (often called the “stress hormone”), which can trigger headaches, stomach troubles, a rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure. She also notes that chronic stress impacts the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off illnesses.
Research shows people suffering from chronic stress are more vulnerable to pathological gambling, eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge-eating and substance abuse. One study from Yale University School of Medicine suggests unresolved trauma and stress from experiences like childhood neglect, abuse and loss, among others, put children and adults at an increased risk for developing an addiction.
Chronic Stress Treatments
While chronic stress can negatively impact your physical health and emotional well-being, there are treatment options to aid in your healing and recovery. When seeking treatment, Dr. Emily Stone, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas, emphasizes the importance of taking a holistic approach, noting that “all parts of us need nurturing in order to heal.”
The following treatments can be effective in mitigating chronic stress.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Dr. Holly Schiff, a psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, recommends a therapeutic method called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). “We use [CBT] to help patients learn to identify negative thought patterns that contribute to chronic stress,” she says. “Our goal is to help individuals modify their behaviors, thoughts and feelings concerning stressors and change them to be more realistic, helpful ones.”
Research shows that regular exercise can help keep cortisol levels in check. In fact, even short periods of daily movement can reduce stress levels and improve cognitive function impacted by prolonged tension. For this reason, Dr. Stone urges those struggling with chronic stress to engage in simple movement each day, such as a 20-minute walk.
“In some cases, you might not be able to remove or minimize stress,” says Dr. Priyanka. “So then you start to focus on finding ways to cope with it better.”
A number of relaxation strategies have been shown to ease the effects of chronic stress, such as yoga, prayer, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation and deep breathing. These activities result in decreased cortisol levels, research suggests.
What you eat can affect how you respond to stress and anxiety. Several studies suggest the more people eat a Western or highly processed diet, the higher their risk of depression and anxiety. Conversely, those who consume a Mediterranean diet—mostly produce, fish and healthy fats—are less likely to develop a mental disorder.
“When and how you eat matters,” adds Dr. Stone. “When you eat affects your blood sugar levels, which also influences your cortisol levels.” To stay in balance, Dr. Stone recommends eating smaller, high-protein meals every three hours to avoid drops in blood sugar.
Support From Family and Friends
Leaning on family and friends can help shield you from the negative effects of chronic stress. While some people may shy away from social interaction during high-tension periods, science shows building a reliable support system can boost resilience to stressful triggers.
When to Seek Help
If the state of your mental health is interfering with your daily life, it’s a good idea to reach out for help, says Dr. Stone.
If you find yourself experiencing the following symptoms, contact a mental health professional:
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts
- Turning to drugs and/or alcohol to cope
- Feeling overwhelmed
Speak to your healthcare provider for recommendations on finding a mental health therapist or psychologist. You may also call your insurance provider to inquire about in-network mental health services or use an online directory, such as the one provided by the American Psychological Association.
“I think the time to call in a professional is always now,” says Dr. Stone. “We all can use professional help with our mental, emotional and relational health. We should normalize that as a given.”
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