Chronic stress is more than a psychological problem. If left untreated, it can harm the body, too. Mindpath Health’s chief medical officer Priyanka, MD, explains common symptoms of chronic stress and its effects if left untreated in this Forbes article.
From traffic jams to health scares to major work deadlines, life brings plenty of stressful moments. While some levels of pressure are normal, if you constantly feel overwhelmed to the point where it affects your mental, emotional, and/or physical health, you may be dealing with chronic stress.
Dealing with chronic stress requires thoughtful intervention, as ignoring it could suppress your immune system, raise your blood pressure, and heighten feelings of anxiety.
What is chronic stress?
Chronic stress can be described as a “perpetual state of overwhelm,” says Nidhi Tewari, a licensed clinical social worker. While the root causes differ from person to person, trauma, caregiving responsibilities, grief and the pressures of work and home life can contribute to ongoing stress, she says. Conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can exacerbate people’s struggles.
Acute vs. chronic stress
Chronic stress, on the other hand, isn’t tied to a particular moment, says Priyanka, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director at Mindpath Health. She attributes chronic stress to “either a significant persistent problem or a combination of interchangeable problems over a period of time.”
“Chronic stress is something that lasts much longer than a month,” says Dr. Priyanka. “For example, take the person who lost their job and faced acute stress. If this person is not able to find another job and becomes homeless, they are facing chronic stress that goes beyond the first stressful event.”
Types of chronic stress
Chronic stress can impact mental health in distinct ways and the sources that trigger it vary. These may include:
- Emotional stress, such as prolonged anxiety or depression
- Relationship stress, related to issues with family, friends and/or romantic partners
- Work stress, including challenges with a boss, coworkers or the environment
Chronic stress symptoms
- Cognitive: Struggling with persistent stress can impact a person’s cognitive functioning, resulting in issues like brain fog and difficulty concentrating.
- Emotional: Dr. Priyanka notes chronic stress can leave people suffering from mood changes and irritability. They may also find themselves withdrawing socially from others.
- Physical: Chronic stress can even take a toll on the body, resulting in low energy, appetite changes, body aches and insomnia.
- Behavioral: Research shows people suffering from chronic stress are more vulnerable to pathological gambling, eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge-eating and substance abuse.
What causes chronic stress?
There are several elements that can lead to the development of chronic stress. External factors such as health scares, work deadlines or a dysfunctional household can trigger stress and prolong it if the situations are not resolved.
The longer someone lives with chronic stress, the more it drains their psychological resources, making it easier for the pressure to continue.
Chronic stress treatments
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Dr. Holly Schiff, a psychologist, recommends a therapeutic method called cognitive behavioral therapy. “Our goal is to help individuals modify their behaviors, thoughts and feelings concerning stressors and change them to be more realistic, helpful ones.”
Research shows that regular exercise can help keep cortisol levels in check. In fact, even short periods of daily movement can reduce stress levels and improve cognitive function impacted by prolonged tension.
Many relaxation strategies have been shown to ease the effects of chronic stress, such as yoga, prayer, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation and deep breathing. These activities result in decreased cortisol levels, research suggests.
What you eat can affect how you respond to stress and anxiety. Several studies suggest the more people eat a Western or highly processed diet, the higher their risk of depression and anxiety. Conversely, those who consume a Mediterranean diet—mostly produce, fish and healthy fats—are less likely to develop a mental disorder.
What does chronic stress do to the body?
Conditions including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis are all associated with chronic stress, according to Yale Medicine. Some individuals may even fall into patterns of alcohol, nicotine and/or prescription drug addiction, the research notes, as well as addiction to potentially damaging behaviors like overeating or undereating and/or gambling.
How do you know if you have chronic stress?
Signs of chronic stress may manifest physically, indicating that you may be dealing with a problem. Here are some common clues that your stress may be chronic:
- Aches and pains
- Insomnia or lethargy
- A change in social behavior, such as self-isolating
- Low energy
- Unfocused or cloudy thinking
- Changes in appetite
How is chronic stress diagnosed?
A mental health professional can help determine whether you may be living with chronic stress. Typically, this professional will perform a psychological evaluation that looks for signs like exhaustion and behavioral changes, as well as prolonged psychological feelings of anxiety, depression, or a combination of many of these symptoms, to come to a comprehensive diagnosis.
Read the full Forbes article with sources.