Chronic Stress: How It Affects You And How To Get Relief

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Chronic stress can change the way you think, feel, and act. If you don't find a way to manage it, it may also impact your physical body, causing potential illness or inflammation. If you believe you may have chronic stress, an effective way to address your symptoms is by learning about its symptoms and the various treatment options available for relief. 

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Struggling to find relief from chronic stress?

What is chronic stress? 

The Centre for Studies on Human Stress defines chronic stress as "…stress resulting from repeated exposure to situations that lead to the release of stress hormones." They caution that this type of stress can cause wear and tear on your mind and body. Some scientists believe the stress response system was not designed to be constantly activated. This overuse may contribute to the breakdown of many bodily systems.

However, there can be a clear difference between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress appears and resolves quickly, while chronic stress continues for a long time, sometimes for many years. Both acute and chronic stress can cause you to become emotionally uncomfortable and overwhelmed, but chronic stress can cause that sensation consistently. The bodily reaction to chronic stress may also be more severe.  

What causes chronic stress? 

There are many unique causes of chronic stress. These can be daily stressors at work, at home, or in relationships. They can also include stressful situations you endure over a long period, such as domestic abuse, ongoing medical problems, or a dysfunctional home life. 

In some cases, the cause of chronic stress may lie in a past traumatic event you haven't processed. You may continue to experience emotional distress daily until you learn to understand and express your feelings about the event. Such events can include child abuse, the loss of a parent at an early age, or another early trauma.

Chronic stress symptoms

Identifying chronic stress can start with recognizing its symptoms. You may already be aware of health problems even if you don't know stress is the cause. Some symptoms of chronic stress you might recognize in your own body and mind include: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • An elevated heart rate
  • Diabetes
  • Frequent sickness and immune system suppression
  • Ulcers
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fertility challenges 
  • Low sex drive
  • abnormal menstrual periods
  • A decrease in muscle tone
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches

People often mistake the psychological effects of stress for situational factors rather than chronic stress. However, stress can often accompany mental health challenges, such as the following: 

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Overeating comfort foods
  • Not eating enough
  • Substance use
  • Social withdrawal
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How chronic stress affects relationships

While a dysfunctional or abusive relationship may cause chronic stress, it can also cause difficulties in relationships. Chronic stress can change relationships when:

  • You fail to prioritize the relationship because you're experiencing stress
  • You become dependent on a partner who shields you from stress
  • Your partner feels rejected because of your irritability
  • You develop a dependency that causes your loved one emotional pain 
  • Your friends are hurt or angry when you withdraw socially

Effects of chronic stress on achievement, career advancement, and personal development

Chronic stress may keep you from performing productively at work or school, decreasing your chances for advancement. If your stress becomes overwhelming, it may also cause you to give up on your dreams. You may not try to go after your wishes, such as a raise or a higher-quality job. Personal development of wisdom, experience, and emotional strength may take a backseat as you live with the effects of chronic stress.

How to get relief from chronic stress

Chronic stress can have detrimental impacts on your physical and mental health. Therefore, it can be vital to learn about the different relief methods available, including the following.  

Quick-start stress relief techniques

You may find short-term relief by learning a few techniques for managing your stress. Below are a few quick relief techniques to try daily or weekly: 

  • Deep breathing
  • Listening to guided imagery recordings
  • Having a cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile
  • Slowing down
  • Being present in the moment
  • Noticing the information you receive from your five senses
  • Talking to a friend or counselor
  • Practicing systematic muscle relaxation by tensing and relaxing your muscles 
  • Getting a massage
  • Watching a comedy 
  • Listening to music (classical music may be effective in reducing stress
  • Exercising
  • Spending time in nature 

New habits

Lifestyle choices can profoundly affect how you feel about your life. Developing new, healthier habits can help you manage your system and believe in your capability to handle challenges. By changing your harmful habits, you may be able to overcome chronic stress more effectively. 

You can consider making adjustments like the ones listed below: 

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
  • Stick to a consistent exercise routine
  • Write in a gratitude journal every day
  • Get enough sleep at night
  • Eat healthy food consistently
  • Practice meditation daily
  • Take care of your medical needs

Professional support 

The above methods may provide you with temporary relief. However, overcoming chronic stress often demands going beyond stress relief techniques to cope with the underlying challenges. You may benefit from professional support if you're in a situation that seems beyond your control. If your chronic stress results from past trauma, you may benefit from working through symptoms related to the past event.

Talking to a mental health professional can be an effective way to dive deeper into your stress and find relief. A counselor can help you explore past events and current situations to discover the origin of stress. That way, they can help you work through your thoughts and feelings and teach you how to manage the remaining stress. In addition, they may provide you with resources for future support. 

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Struggling to find relief from chronic stress?

Support through online therapy

Life can be stressful for various reasons, including a busy schedule. If you're struggling to find time to make it to therapy sessions, consider reaching out for support online. Online platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed counselor with experience treating chronic stress. You can participate in sessions on your schedule or whenever you have time. 

Online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person counseling sessions in treating multiple mental health conditions. One study explored the differences between a videoconference-based CBT intervention and an in-person program for mood, anxiety disorders, and stress. Researchers found that participants in both groups experienced decreased symptoms after treatment. Additionally, the working alliance between the therapist and each participant and overall participant satisfaction were comparable.

Takeaway

Chronic stress can take over multiple areas of your life, making it challenging to function positively. It can be vital to recognize how stress affects you and take steps to overcome it. Finding relief is possible with healthy tools, support, and encouragement. If you're trying to cope with chronic stress on your own and struggle to find relief, it may be valuable to speak to a professional. Consider reaching out online or in your area to get started.
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