What Is Chronic Stress, and How Does It Affect the Body?
Plus, how to cope with it, according to mental health experts.
Here's a hard truth: Stress is unavoidable—that means, at some point in your life so far, you've experienced those feelings of emotional or physical tension.
According to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine, stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand (think: relationship issues, a recent breakup, or—apropos to 2021—a pandemic). It's not always a bad thing, of course; in short bursts, stress can actually be beneficial to you, like if you're trying to avoid a dangerous situation. But when stress becomes a constant in your life, it can start wreaking havoc on your health.
This kind of prolonged stress is known as chronic stress, meaning it can last for weeks, months, or even years—and your body may get so used to its presence that you don't even notice it most of the time. But that doesn't mean its not a problem that needs fixing. Here, experts weigh in on how to recognize the symptoms of chronic stress, and what to do about it.
What is chronic stress, and how is it different from more acute stress?
If you think you're suffering from chronic stress, it can be helpful to consider how long the stress has been a part of your life. "With chronic stress, we're usually talking about a stressor that's persisting over weeks [to] months, rather than days," Amanda Spray, PhD, a psychologist at NYU Langone, tells Health. It's helpful to think of it as an underlying worry—something that sits just below the surface but can intensify when triggered.
Acute stress, on the other hand, is stress that hits you fast and goes away quickly, like when you are forced to slam on your brakes while driving, or get bad news that immediately elicits the feeling that your stomach just dropped.
What are the symptoms of chronic stress?
Everyone reacts to chronic stress differently, Spray says. But the overarching theme is that it can make you feel off. "The symptoms of chronic stress hit many of your basic functions, like how you sleep and eat," Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "[They] may swing to either extreme—trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, or overeating or losing your appetite."
Some other easily recognizable symptoms of chronic stress, especially if you've been feeling it for a few weeks, include headaches or migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and pain, Spray says. And in some cases, your cognitive abilities can also suffer, making you feel confused or unable to think quickly and clearly, Dr. Albers-Bowling adds.
If that wasn't bad enough, chronic stress can also affect your body's ability to fight off illnesses, making you more susceptible to viral infections like the common cold and the flu, per MedlinePlus. Certain vaccines may also be less effective for people experiencing chronic stress.
Chronic stress can also put people at a higher risk of other chronic health conditions. "Stress changes your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood flow, which can lead to heart-related problems," Dr. Albers-Bowling says. Spray adds that it can also up your risk of obesity and other related health conditions.
What can cause chronic stress?
Chronic stress can be caused by a number of different situations, Spray says—and those vary from person to person, as well. "Chronic stress can come in so many different forms: financial distress, experiences of discrimination and racism, employment, health conditions, experiencing chronic pain," she says. Trauma, food insecurity, uncertain political climates, dysfunctional relationships, and poverty can lead to chronic stress as well, Dr. Albers-Bowling says.
It's also important to point out that a lot of those stressors—particularly discrimination and racism—affect certain communities more than others. "It's true that Black and LGBTQ individuals, as well as other stigmatized groups, experience chronically high levels of stress, Dr. Albers-Bowling says. "Stigma, prejudice, discrimination, expectations of rejection, hiding [or] concealing are just a few of the triggers of chronic stress." Overall, she says that "ongoing experiences with discrimination or marginalization can lead to an accumulation of physiological and psychological wear and tear on the body and mind."
How is chronic stress managed—and when should you see a doctor?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer to treatment options for chronic stress, Spray says. "This is also complex because there are some chronic stressors that psychotherapy can be helpful to address," she says, explaining that cognitive behavioral therapy can help many patients learn how to cope with the source of their chronic stress. "This can include examining one's thoughts and cognitions," she explains. Spray adds that cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients learn what to do with these thoughts so they become less overwhelming. (It's also worth noting, however, that members of these marginalized communities might have a harder time accessing treatment to help them with chronic stress, Dr. Albers-Bowling says.)
In some situations, mindfulness and meditation practices can help alleviate the effects of chronic stress. Spray recommends trying out an app like Calm, as a way to check out the practice for free.
As with any other health problem, if you feel your symptoms escalating to an unmanageable point, it's important to seek help immediately. Unfortunately, the symptoms of chronic stress are often underestimated, Spray says. "I think often the impact of chronic stress is minimized," she says, adding that normalizing a conversation about chronic stress "has such a profound impact on us—both mind and body."
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