STRESS. You can’t avoid it these days. It literally surrounds us in everyday life, and virtually no one is immune to it. However, a little bit of stress is a good thing! It keeps us and our neurological systems on alert. But what’s the difference between normal stress and chronic stress?
Short-lived stress is generally harmless, and sometimes even helpful (such as a motivating adrenaline rush). However, when it persists and becomes chronic that’s when it can create havoc in our lives and in our health.
Chronic stress can cause a range of concerning symptoms and not just the psychological ones we often associate with it. It can also contribute to the development of a multitude of physical and mental disorders — it truly is a full-body response.
In fact, chronic stress has become so stealthy at infiltrating every part of our lives that health professionals have dubbed a new illness for a new era: Chronic Stress — the health epidemic of the 21st century.
What Is the Difference Between Normal Stress and Chronic Stress?
Following are the steps when your normal stress response is activated and what it feels like:
- You encounter a perceived threat, whether that’s real or imagined, physical, mental or emotional.
- Your Hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, kicks into gear and sets off the alarm system in your body.
- Via nerve and hormonal signals (sent as a result of the alarm system), the adrenal glands are prompted to release stress hormones, including Adrenaline and Cortisol.
- Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and pumps up your energy reserves.
- Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and bolsters tissue repair function.
- Cortisol also downgrades nonessential functions that would take up precious resources needed during the fight-or-flight response. For example, the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes are all put on the backburner.
- Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. For example, as stress hormone levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other body systems resume their regular activities, too.
So Then, What Happens When the Normal Stress Response Goes into Overdrive?
Even though a lion isn’t chasing you across the grassy plains anymore, you probably have a seemingly continuous accumulation of different types of stress — from your private life, professional life and everywhere in between.
This includes overeating, toxic relationships and information + digital overload!
Long-term activation of your stress-response system (as if your natural fight or flight reaction switch stays in the “on” position), coupled with the overexposure to stress hormones like Cortisol can disrupt nearly all your body’s complex systems and processes.
Health Problems Associated with Chronic Stress:
- Anxiety, major depression and other mental health issues, including phobias, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
- Mood changes and easy to anger
- Digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation
- Appetite changes whether increased or decreased
- Weight gain and obesity
- Headaches and chronic body pain
- Rapid heartbeat and palpitations
- Increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, heart disease and stroke
- Lower immunity and frequent sickness
- Contributes to premature aging
- Lowered libido, increased sexual dysfunction
- Hormone imbalances (closely associated with Adrenal Dysfunction) and fertility issues
- Sleep problems and insomnia
- Decreased energy and fatigue
- Memory impairment and difficulty concentrating
- Skin issues like acne, eczema, hives and psoriasis
- Excessive sweating
- Can contribute to, and exacerbate, addictions (and addictive behavior)
And so many, many more possible symptoms that this is why chronic stress is now being referred to as the “health epidemic of the 21st century.”
Preventing Chronic Stress Syndrome
Chronic stress can become overwhelming, especially due to the feeling of being constantly under a full-body and mind attack! However, there are ways you can reduce stress levels and improve the uncomfortable symptoms you might be experiencing.
10 Ways to Manage Stress and Prevent Chronic Stress Syndrome:
- Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms. Obviously, they can vary from person to person, but if you can recognize your own signs of too much stress, you’ll be better equipped to manage them.
- Identify and then avoid your personal stress triggers, when possible. Taking note of your own specific triggers can help you to develop personalized coping and management strategies. Reducing exposure to them is going to be key in prevention though.
- Improve your sleep. Getting too little sleep or poor-quality sleep can significantly contribute to stress load. Generally, avoiding caffeine, eating too much, intense exercise and devices (!!) before bed is sound advice.
- Eat a healthy diet, including limiting caffeine, alcohol and excessive sugar intake which can all stress the nervous system.
- Exercise regularly to increase the body’s production of endorphins. These are the chemicals that boost mood and reduce stress. You could try walking, cycling, running, circuit training, an HIIT workout or playing sports. You just need to move your body, work up a sweat and do something that you truly enjoy.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, massage therapy or other type of hands-on “touch therapy.”
- Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive impact on reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
- Take time for hobbies, such as reading, listening to music or volunteering in your community.
- Foster positive relationships (and ditch the toxic ones), and try to have a good belly laugh more often.
- Connect, seek support and talk it out with friends and family, as well as with professional counseling, if needed.
With the very real risk of being affected by chronic stress, it’s increasingly more important to pay close attention to how you deal with both minor and major stress events. And it’s important to be able to tune into and recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress. That way you know how and when to seek help. You may also want to read my earlier posts Feeling Stressed or Off Your Game?, Stress Can Put a Strain on Your Health and The (Mental) State We Live In.
Are you feeling like you want to soothe and calm your frazzled nerves? Do you even recognize and know the symptoms that indicate when you’re under chronic stress? Do you feel there may be a connection between your stress and any health problem listed in the post? Please comment below and let us know how you handle your stress. As always, we love to hear from you.