What Is Chronic Stress? - Symptoms & Effects
Living with chronic stress can easily become the norm in our fast-paced world. In this lesson, we'll discuss the symptoms of chronic stress and how it can affect your health, and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.
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Effects of stress on the body
What Happens When We’re Stressed?
When you feel stress, your body moves into a state of high alert. The brain interprets the missed meeting, the traffic jam, or an argument with the boss as an emergency situation because it upsets you. As a result, your brain tells the body to release various hormones to help you cope. These hormones give you a surge of energy, improve your reflexes, and help you think more clearly. This state of high alert is commonly called the fight or flight syndrome . It simply means that your body has turned on the stress response and is primed for action.
When stress is short-lived, such as when you’re driving rapidly through rush hour to get to an important event, you use those extra hormones to meet the immediate demands. Once the stressful event is over (you arrive safely and on time), your body quickly returns to a more balanced state in which you are relaxed. That is how our body efficiently works to help us cope with daily stress.
Unfortunately, much of the stress we experience is not short-lived but ongoing. Say, for example, a loved one spends many days in the hospital, job demands seem relentless, or an important relationship is dissolving. When stress is prolonged, or chronic , the body tries to keep up by releasing the same hormones that it provides during short-term stress; however, our bodies and minds can’t remain in this state of high alert for very long. Over the course of weeks and sometimes months, the very same hormones that initially gave you extra strength and mental clarity are now starting to work against you.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
When you get beyond a certain point (and that point differs for each person), your body starts giving you signs that it is reaching the limit of what it can take. Once you cross that threshold, you begin to compromise your mental and physical health. Here are some common symptoms of chronic stress:
Inability to concentrate
Irritability or short temper
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Inability to relax
Procrastination or neglecting responsibilities
Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
Depression or general unhappiness
Effects of Chronic Stress
The longer you live with chronic stress, the more you become used to it. It starts to feel ‘normal,’ although it continues to do damage to your health. Chronic stress affects nearly every part of your body. It raises your blood pressure, weakens your immune system, increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, and speeds up the aging process. It also makes you more likely to be depressed, have problems sleeping, and be susceptible to a host of other possible health concerns.
Not everyone copes with stress the same way. Some people can encounter very difficult life situations and not be as affected as others are. In fact, some people, such as professional athletes, CEOs of companies, emergency room doctors, and law enforcement officers, often thrive in this perpetual state of high alert; but that is not the way most people respond. Chronic stress eventually wears most of us down physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Learning to Manage Stress
Your ability to effectively manage stress depends on several factors:
Your outlook on life. You tend to be more resilient to the effects of stress if you have an optimistic outlook and a sense of humor and if you accept change as an inevitable part of life.
Your support system. A network of supportive family and friends can help you cope with stress, especially when a stressful situation lingers.
Your emotional response. Learn to talk yourself down from an emotionally unsettling situation, and find ways to soothe and calm yourself. This might include exercise, using relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing or yoga), meeting with a trusted friend, or engaging in a hobby.
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