Chronic Stress: How It Affects You And How To Get Relief
By Marie Miguel
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Robin Brock
When you have chronic stress disorder, the stress response becomes your constant companion. In time, it changes the way you think. Eventually, it affects your body, causing poor health and even serious medical problems that can last a lifetime if you don't find a way to manage your stress. If you feel you may be suffering from chronic stress, the best way to begin addressing the problem is to learn all you can.
What Is Chronic Stress?
To start at the beginning, you need to learn the answer to 'What is chronic stress?' While the complete answer is quite complex, a simple chronic stress definition can help you understand the basics of the problem. Experts define chronic stress as a long-term pattern of stress response within the endocrine system to emotional pressures you feel you have little or no control over. Chronic stress also can cause damage to your physical health.
Acute vs Chronic Stress
So how do you know the difference between acute vs chronic stress? Acute stress happens quickly and resolves quickly. However, chronic stress continues for a long time, sometimes for many years. Both acute stress and chronic stress cause you to feel emotionally uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Chronic stress makes you feel that way constantly. The bodily reaction to chronic stress is more severe as well.
Causes of Chronic Stress
The situations that continuously trigger chronic stress are those that go on in the long-term without being resolved. These can be simple daily pressures such as work, home, and social pressures we all feel from time to time but some people can't seem to get away from.
They can also include stressful situations you endure over a long period of time, such as domestic abuse, ongoing medical problems you or a loved one you care for is going through, or a dysfunctional home life.
Sometimes, the cause of chronic stress lies in your past, but you have never dealt with the feelings it caused. You continue to feel the emotional distress daily until you learn to understand and express your feelings about the traumatic event. Such events can include child abuse, the loss of a parent at an early age, or any other early trauma.
The Biology of Chronic Stress
When you have chronic stress disorder, biology figures in two different ways. First, you have a physical response to the emotional pressure that causes you to feel the emotional effects of stress. Second, as the stress continues, it has biological effects on your body.
The Physical Stress Response
The biological response to emotional stress is triggered in the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that includes the adrenal fibers and causes adrenal secretions to increase or decrease, muscles to contract or relax, and heart rate to go up or down. When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, stress hormones such as cortisol are released.
The Biological Effects of Long-Term Stress
After months or years of being triggered constantly, the sympathetic nervous system is almost always in the 'on' position. This causes problems with your immune system, your cardiovascular system, your digestive system, your memory, and many other systems and functions of your body.
Chronic Stress Symptoms
Identifying chronic stress starts with recognizing its symptoms. You may already be aware of health problems even if you don't know it is stress that's causing or aggravating them. Psychological symptoms may be disguised as bad luck, people not liking you, or having emotional feelings you can't explain. Make a list that contains each symptom of chronic stress that you recognize in your own body and mind. Then, share it with a professional who can evaluate your condition. The following are some of the most common chronic stress symptoms.
Physical Effects of Chronic Stress
If you have chronic stress disorder, you can have a variety of physical problems. These can include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Elevated heart rate
- Getting sick often due to suppression of the immune system
- Erectile dysfunction
- Fertility problems
- Low sex drive
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Decrease in muscle tone
Psychological Effects of Chronic Stress
People commonly mistakenly attribute the psychological effects of stress to situational factors rather than chronic stress disorder. These symptoms, then, are often identified as being a result of chronic stress only after counseling. The can include:
- Overeating comfort foods
- Not eating enough
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Social withdrawal
How Chronic Stress Affects Relationships
While it's true that chronic stress may be triggered by a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, it can also cause a variety of problems even in relationships that were previously healthy ones. Chronic stress can change relationships when:
- You fail to prioritize the relationship because you're so involved with stressful situations
- You become dependent on a loved one who shields you from stress
- You develop an addiction that causes your loved one's emotional pain or financial difficulty
- Your loved one feels rejected because of your irritability
- Your friends abandon the relationships or become hurt or angry when you become socially withdrawn
Effects of Chronic Stress on Achievement, Career Advancement, and Personal Development
Chronic stress can also cause you to give up on your dreams. It can keep you from performing your best at work or school, decreasing your chances for advancement. You may become so anxious that you don't even try to do the things you want to do, such as asking for a raise or applying for a better job. In addition, personal development of wisdom, experience, and emotional strength takes a backseat as you deal with the effects of chronic stress.
How to Get Relief from Chronic Stress
As you explore the subject of chronic stress, you might become overwhelmed at the prospect or recognition of the often-severe effects of stress in your life. So, it's important to spend time along the way finding out about the many ways you can get relief from it. Focus on the fact that many people have overcome chronic stress and avoided or recovered from the mental and physical problems it causes.
Quick-Start Stress Relief Techniques
By learning a few quick techniques for managing your stress, you can get short-term relief when the stress is the worst and at times when you most need to be calm. Some of these techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Listening to guided imagery recordings
- Having a cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile
- Slowing down
- Be present in the moment, noticing the information you're getting from your 5 senses
- Talking to a friend or counselor
- Doing systematic muscle relaxation, tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a time
- Getting a massage
- Watching a comedy movie or going to see a comedian
- Listening to music - classical music has been shown very effective at reducing the stress response
- Taking a walk in a natural environment
Adopting New Habits
Lifestyle choices can have a profound effect on the way you feel about your life. Developing new, healthier habits can make you feel calmer and more capable of handling the situations that are causing you stress. Change these habits, and overcoming chronic stress becomes much easier:
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- Stick to a regular exercise routine
- Write in a gratitude journal every day
- Get the right amount of sleep
- Eat the right amount of healthy foods regularly
- Practice meditation daily
- Take care of your medical needs
The above methods may provide you some temporary relief. However, overcoming chronic stress demands that you go beyond simple stress relief techniques and dealing with the underlying issues. If you're in a situation that seems beyond your control, you may need help finding ways to get out of it. If your chronic stress happened because of a past trauma, you won't get beyond it until you deal with the feelings and symptoms that are related to that past event.
Developing a Healthy Long-Term Stress Relief Strategy Making Long-Term Changes
Talking to a counselor is the best way to go deeper into your stress to relieve it once and for all. A counselor can help you explore past events and current situations to find out the origin of the stress. Then, they can help you work through your thoughts and feelings about it. They can teach you ways to manage the stress that remains. Finally, they can help you explore your options and provide you with resources to help you change or get out of the situation.
Finding Help for Chronic Stress
Now that you know a counselor can help you manage your stress and deal with the situation that caused it, the next step is to seek that help. You can find it in your local community at a mental health clinic, a private counseling practice, a stress management class, or a mental health facility that specializes in helping people with stress and anxiety.
Another option is getting help online at BetterHelp.com. There, you can connect with a licensed counselor with experience in the treatment of chronic stress disorder. As a bonus, you can have this therapy at home or wherever you have an internet connection. Getting started is quick and easy when you do it online. Either way, you can deal with the issues you need to face, learn stress management techniques, get help making important changes in your life, and living a more peaceful life.