Who out there is a little stressed these days? COVID-19. Businesses closed. Working from home. Schools Closed. Home schooling. Toilet paper and cleaning supplies shortages. I could go on… Serious folks no one can avoid it these days. And even if we weren’t in a full out pandemic – it literally surrounds us in everyday life and virtually no one is immune to it. However, a little bit of stress is actually a good thing! It keeps us – and our neurological systems on its toes, for lack of a better term.
But, while short-lived stress is generally harmless, and sometimes even helpful (hello there, motivating adrenaline rush!), it’s when it persists and becomes chronic that it can really start to 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 it with. 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 Does Chronic Stress Feel Like?
First, we must understand what our natural or normal stress response feels like:
- Encounter a perceived threat – whether that’s real or imagined, physical, mental, or emotional.
- 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 heart rate, elevates blood pressure and pumps up 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 back burner.
- 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.
But what happens when your normal stress response goes into overdrive?
Even though a lion isn’t chasing you across the grassy plains, 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.
The health problems associated with chronic stress:
- Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, including phobias, bipolar disorder & schizophrenia
- Mood changes and easy to anger
- Digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation
- Appetite changes – increased or decreased
- Weight gain and obesity
- Headaches and chronic body pain
- Rapid heartbeat and palpitations
- Increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, heart disease & 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 – and why it is now being referred to as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”.
Preventing Chronic Stress Syndrome
Chronic stress can become very overwhelming, especially due to that feeling of being constantly under a full-body & mind attack! However, there are a number of ways you can reduce stress levels and improve the uncomfortable symptoms you might be experiencing.
Here are 10 ways to manage stress and prevent Chronic Stress Syndrome:
- Learn to recognize the signs & 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. Easier said than done, but 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 – chemicals that boost mood and reduce stress. You could try walking, cycling, running, circuit training, a HIIT workout, or playing sports. You just need to move your body, work up a sweat and do something that you actually 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.
- Fostering positive relationships (and ditching the toxic ones) and try to have a good belly laugh more often!
- Connect, seek support and talk it out – with friends & family, as well as 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 be able to tune into and recognize the signs & symptoms of chronic stress — so that you know how and when to seek help.
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Elsevier (SciTech Connect, April 2016) – Stress: the health epidemic of the 21st century
Mayo Clinic (Stress Management, March 2019) – Chronic stress puts your health at risk
Medical News Today (October 2018) – What are the health effects of chronic stress?
Healthline (January 2018) – 11 signs & symptoms of too much stress