Chronic Stress: Examples, Symptoms, And Coping Mechanisms

Updated March 22, 2021

Everyone gets stressed out at one point or another throughout their day and their lives, and we all know it can cause some pretty unpleasant side effects when it happens. We may get headaches, an upset stomach, feeling down in the dumps, or just plain frustrated and irritable. Most of our problems tend to come and go, but what happens when they stay for far longer than expected, and our once-temporary stress has now become a chronic concern?

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Acute Vs. Chronic Stress

There are three types of stress a person may encounter: two of them are acute, and one is chronic.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the regular everyday stress we experience when something goes wrong. It's a short term experience that may leave us feeling annoyed, angry, scared, or a bit upset. Someone may have been driving crazily and nearly hit you on your way to work, and your heart is pounding. Maybe you and your spouse were fighting over something again, and it's left you in a bad mood. Your boss is hounding you, your dog used the bathroom inside of the house again, and you stubbed your toe getting up in the middle of the night.

All of these can cause any number of emotions from feeling anxious to feeling a bit depressed to being just mad about something getting on your nerves. However, all of these problems are temporary. They will all pass, and your life will get back to normal, whether it's within a few hours or if it takes a day or two. You could be fretting over an upcoming job interview or about to bungee jump, and these two are more positive examples of the acute stress a person may experience.

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Even something such as your home getting broken into while you're away or getting in a fender bender is considered acute because they are one-time events and simply pass, even if you may have to run a bit of damage control thanks to the situation. In cases of severe acute stress or when the person experiencing it may be susceptible to being highly affected by the situation (such as those prone to mental illness or with a pre-existing mental health condition), this can sometimes lead to trauma. A near death experience or assault may only happen once, but it is so terrifying and intense that it will have lasting effects. This, however, is not considered chronic stress since the incident itself did not remain ongoing. The effects though may last significantly longer and cause far more long-term problems.

Often, when under acute stress, an individual simply experiences mood changes, digestive distress, and an upset stomach, or headaches and tensions headaches. This is due to acute stress triggering the body's "fight or flight" response and releasing adrenaline and other hormones to counteract the stressful situation, which often gives a person a boost in clarity and energy in order to cope with what's going on along with affecting a few other systems within the person's body. The adrenaline from this reaction may be experienced without negative side effects when one experiences acute stress of a "thrilling" and sometimes fun nature, such as riding a rollercoaster or watching a scary movie. The effects of this acute stress and its reactions though are only temporary and eventually pass, unlike the overstimulation caused by chronic stress.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress is simply when there is a high frequency of acute stress situations in a person's daily life and therefore comes with a corresponding higher frequency in stress-related symptoms as well. This type of stress generally applies to those who stay overly busy, take on far too many responsibilities, or push themselves and constantly have to have something going on. These individuals may just have too much on their plate and are incapable of maintaining structure and balance, they may live a high-stress life but thrive off of the chaos, or they may simply have a constant string of bad luck.

Two types of personalities are normally assigned to those who experience episodes of acute stress, and these are the "Type A" personality type and those who are constant worriers. Most people have heard of Type A and Type B personalities, and those with a Type A personality are incredibly high-strung. They are very driven, sometimes aggressive, competitive, and always on the go (and rather hostile about it). They can be incredibly ambitious to a fault and highly sensitive to criticism or feelings of failure. This type of personality can easily experience regular episodes of acute stress as they continue to push themselves harder and expect nothing less than perfection.

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"Worrier" types of personalities can be summed up as the pessimists of the world. They are constantly negative and fretting and worrying over every last detail and possibility of what is currently wrong and what could go wrong. A lot of their stress is brought upon themselves by constantly overthinking and in a negative light. To them, nearly everything is risky, dangerous, or harsh, so they are far more fearful and depressed compared to their aggressive counterparts, the Type A personalities.

Episodic acute stress symptoms are still some of the same responses as those experiencing just acute stress on its own, but the recurrent factor also adds in a level of cognitive issues as well. These people are so overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of their troubles that they have trouble focusing, processing things, and may even have impaired retention when it comes to memory. They become mentally exhausted, whether angrily so or consumed with depressive and anxious thoughts, and this also begins to affect their relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. This type of stress is also far more likely to cause more serious issues, since it's recurrent, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart issues, and high blood pressure.

Chronic Stress

While acute stress may be fleeting and episodic acute stress may be recurrent but still solvable if a person is willing to make changes to their lifestyle and thought processes to alleviate their constant concerns, chronic stress is serious, long-term stress that an individual is incapable of seeing an end to in their future. This type of stress stems from situations such as childhood trauma that forever alters a person's perception of the world and the people around them. It can stem from poverty, feeling trapped, having a high-stress or miserable job but having no choice but to provide for themselves and their families, having an unhappy marriage and feeling unable to escape or find a healthy solution (especially if children are involved), being part of a dysfunctional family, living in turbulent or dangerous times or places, and even trying to cope with a serious and incurable illness.

The causes of chronic stress do not have simple answers, and many experiencing stressors severe and constant enough to cause this type of stress grow to lose hope. They feel trapped in their situations and either choose to endure them and continue, allowing constant stress and its effects to take a toll on their physical and mental health, or they may throw in the towel and begin to make unhealthy and dangerous life choices, sometimes even turning to suicide as an answer to their problems as an escape.

The Signs And Symptoms Of Chronic Stress

The symptoms of chronic stress are quite a bit more significant than those found in acute stress situations. Long-term and high levels of stress can cause heart disease and heart complications (such as an increased risk of heart attack and stroke due to bodily changes increasing cholesterol and other levels); a weakening of the immune system that can lead to recurrent infections, chronic illness, and even lung disease; possible connections to cancer; liver disease; and an increased risk in suicidal ideation and behaviors. You may also notice changes such as headaches, difficulties with concentration, sleep problems, changes in appetite and digestion, fatigue, irritability, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, skin problems (fever blisters, acne, hives, or a worsening of conditions like psoriasis), hair loss, and other mental health conditions (such as depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder).

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Doctors have looked into the question of "How does chronic stress physically change the brain?" and found significant results and implications. It's known that chronic stress and related experiences and environments as a child can have long-term effects on a person in numerous ways, but doctors are now becoming more aware of the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) on the brain and the permanent changes it can cause.

The brain consists of white matter and gray matter. The white matter portion of the brain consists of multiple components, including the myelin sheath which that assists in speeding up interactions between different brain regions and the neurons within the brain itself. The gray matter of the brain consists of nerve cells and is the main part contributing to thought processing and making decisions. Cortisol seems to affect the white matter by producing excess myelin that impairs the normal functioning between the amygdala (emotions and reactions/responses) and hippocampus (memory) and "hardwires" the connection in a manner that would set off a constant "fight or flight" response in a person. Constant high levels of cortisol also, while increasing the amount of stems cells to turn into myelin, decrease the amount that will turn into the neurons that are essential for learning and retention of information, which can impair a person's learning ability as well as affect their memory.

Coping Mechanisms For Chronic Stress

Though chronic stress may cause some pretty significant problems for a person experiencing it and the solutions to their problems may not always be easy or even possible, there are still some techniques and coping mechanisms one can implement to assist in managing the effects.

The best starting point for coping with any type of problem is to care for your body, which can have quite an influence on the mind. It's always wise to try to eat a healthy and balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, and get as much rest as your body may need to repair itself and function as well as possible regularly. Poor physical health can contribute to an unhealthy mind.

Relaxation is also key in reducing stress levels, though it may be much easier said than done. Meditation and yoga have always been great options for refocusing, calming the mind, and easing tensions. Distraction is also a healthy coping method and can be done by engaging in enjoyable activities such as hobbies, like watching a movie, playing a game, going for a hike or walk, reading a book, or spending time with someone you care about. Healthy relationships and the support of those around you easily make dealing with harder days and difficult situations much easier to bear.

It's important not to isolate yourself and worsen the feelings of loneliness and hopefulness that often come along with trying to endure a hard circumstance. Sometimes even reaching out to help others while struggling yourself can help an individual to feel better by making a positive change in the world around them and making their time feel more valuable and worth the effort.

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In more severe circumstances when a stress-inducing situation does not have a quick or easy answer, and its effects are impacting you in a way to make it hard to function in everyday activities and responsibilities, the best option may be to seek professional help. Counseling, psychotherapy, and medications are available to those who need them and can assist in reducing stress-related symptoms, providing insight and clarity that may help a solution seem more possible and tangible, and also providing additional support until one's circumstances can be improved.

The trained professionals at BetterHelp are available on any schedule and from the comfort of your own home (no driving out to a doctor's office) to provide information about stress, coping with difficult situations in your life, and further information and advice on any of your mental health concerns.

 
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