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Chronic Stress and How to Manage It

Chronic Stress and How to Manage It

Everyone seems stressed these days. From the current pandemic to economic pressures, racial unrest, political tensions and natural disasters, the start of the new decade has seemed to throw one stressor after another.

At some point, that stress may become something you can’t simply shake off: Experiencing stress over an extended period may indicate that stress is chronic.

Chronic stress can take a toll on your mind and body. Fortunately, there are things you can do to back on the path to mental and physical wellbeing.

What is Stress?

Stress might seem like a bad thing, but that’s not always the case. The stress response (fight or flight) is natural: It helps our bodies gear up for action—like avoiding an oncoming bus or meeting a tight deadline. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can boost mental clarity, tighten muscles, and accelerate the heart rate.

Stress that helps you stay more alert is known as acute stress—this type of stress comes and goes—and we all have it from time to time. It doesn’t last long-term.

But for some people, the stress goes on for a long time. The body still reacts to it in the same way—as if bracing for potential danger—but that danger never comes. It keeps you in a constant state of vigilance, even when it doesn’t have to do so.

This is known as chronic stress, and it’s not healthy.

When Does Stress Become Chronic?

Stress that lasts for weeks or months indicate chronic stress.

Chronic stress can impact your overall health. One risk is high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. For example, studies have shown that chronic stress is associated with a hypertension (or high blood pressure). Furthermore, some risks can snowball into others: Hypertension, for example, can raise your risk for other health problems, such as heart attack or stroke.

Similarly, the hormone cortisol—which gets released during chronic stress—may also lead to cravings of sweets and fats. As we all know, unhealthy eating can also raise your risk for obesity or other chronic diseases.

But the consequences of chronic stress don’t stop with the physical effects. Stress can affect your emotional or mental health too—not just making you more prone to nervous or anxious feelings, but also more depressed. Recently, the American Medical Association acknowledged how anxiety and depression can be connected, as well as how the isolation of COVID-19 may exacerbate problems.

Signs and Symptoms

Chronic stress can have several physical and emotional symptoms, which can make daily functioning more challenging.

Signs and symptoms of chronic stress may include:

Tips for Managing Chronic Stress

Successful management of chronic stress can vary from person to person; what works for you may not for someone else. Here are some stress-busting tips may help you cope with stress:

 

 

 

 

Signs It’s Time to Seek Help

Even with a good self-management plan, sometimes you may need more support. A mental health professional can be a great resource, but they’re particularly important to see more urgently if you have thoughts of self-harm or feel drawn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Seek help right away if you have suicidal thoughts. Call your healthcare provider or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Call 911 if you or someone you know is in immediate danger or go to the nearest emergency room.

Remember: Chronic stress is something many people experience, but it doesn’t mean you have to slog through it, and certainly not alone. The sooner you get care and prioritize your own healing, the sooner you can feel more like yourself.

References:

  1. National Institutes of Health. Stress and Your Health. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  2. American Psychological Association. Stress in the Time of COVID-19. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/stress-in-america-covid.pdf. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  3. Neurological Research. Liu M-Y, Li N, Li WA, Khan H. Association Between Psychosocial Stress and Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. 2017;39(6):573-580. doi:10.1080/01616412.2017.1317904. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  4. American Heart Association. What is High Blood Pressure? Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/the-facts-about-high-blood-pressure/what-is-high-blood-pressure. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  5. American Psychological Association. Healthy Ways to Handle Life’s Stressors. Available at: https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-tips. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  6. American Medical Association. Why Depression, Anxiety are Prevalent During COVID-19. Available at: https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/why-depression-anxiety-are-prevalent-during-covid-19. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  7. American Heart Association. Working Out to Relieve Stress. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/working-out-to-relieve-stress. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  8. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A. Rhee TG, Marottoli RA, Van Ness PH, Tinetti ME. Patterns and Perceived Benefits of Utilizing Seven Major Complementary Health Approaches in U.S. Older Adults. 2018;73(8):1119-1124. doi:10.1093/gerona/gly099. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  9. National Institutes of Health. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep#dreaming. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  10. National Institutes of Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. Available at: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml. Accessed September 25, 2020.
  11. American Psychological Association. The Great Unknown: 10 Tips for Dealing with the Stress of Uncertainty. https://www.apa.org. Published 2017. Accessed October 16, 2020. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-uncertainty