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If you feel fatigued, unproductive, hopeless and overwhelmed — and you’ve been feeling this way for some time — you might be in the throes of chronic stress.
From late nights and long hours at work to neglected responsibilities and lost sleep, stress can make itself known in many ways. But stress isn’t always obvious, sometimes going unnoticed until the problem has gotten serious.
We’re guessing you’ve found yourself here because you feel not-so-great. You may describe this feeling as burnt out or exhausted, or you might be experiencing so much anxiety and tension that you feel like a rubber band about to snap.
In any case, you may have found the name for your condition.
Many things can characterize chronic stress — many symptoms to be aware of and many resulting impacts to your life, productivity, health and happiness. But luckily, there are treatments for chronic stress that can help prevent or undo the damage.
Before you skip ahead to the helpful tips, though, take a moment to look at what makes chronic stress tick. Understanding the enemy is an essential part of defeating it, and if you’re going to overcome chronic stress, you need to know where to find it.
After all, it may be hiding in places you haven’t thought to look.
Stress is a common, overused word in the world of work life, home life and many things in between. Even the most calm-looking of your friends and peers may babbly about the stresses of their lives while seeming otherwise relaxed and fulfilled.
But make no mistake: even seemingly relaxed people can feel stress from time to time. And while stress may have lost much of its meaning due to overuse, chronic stress is a very different and particular concept — one with a specific definition.
Chronic stress is a condition in which someone is stressed regularly, repeatedly and continuously by something, everything or nothing. Unlike normal stress, the chronic kind isn’t triggered by current issues — it can be lingering stress imprinted onto your brain by things like past traumas.
Even if you have regularly occurring stress, it doesn’t need to be ongoing or currently active. According to the American Psychological Association, a single stressful event or stressor can cause someone with chronic stress to get locked into a stressed state, even if the stressor has long since passed.
Stress, for the record, is just a condition in which your senses are heightened by changes or challenges — also known as a stress response. Our bodies and brains are conditioned to respond to stress by becoming more alert as a survival mechanism in (perceived) dangerous situations, and during this time, our heart rate goes up.
But when stress becomes chronic, it makes you constantly alert, meaning you’re always in “survival mode.” If you’re chronically stressed, every new piece of information and every new challenge triggers a survival response. And that can have some really nasty effects on your health and happiness.
The effects of stress can cause many symptoms that affect your body for an extended period. Physical symptoms of chronic stress may include:
Muscle tension, jaw clenching or shaking
Intimacy and arousal issues
A weakened immune system
Unexplained aches and pains
Headaches, chest pain, racing heart or dizziness
Elevated blood pressure
Digestive problems like nausea or diarrhea
Stress can affect everything from your metabolism to your hormones. Over time, it can even increase your risk of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, as well as cardiovascular problems like heart disease.
There’s also evidence that prolonged stress can make your hair fall out. Hair loss due to stress is indeed possible (even without you literally tearing it out over a source of stress).
In short, it can mean big problems for your well-being — and we haven’t even gotten to how it can affect your mental health.
It’s not hard to imagine a body affected by stress in the worst imaginable ways. A person who suffers from every stress-related symptom would potentially be bald, feeble, constantly sick, lacking libido, at risk of a heart attack, sleepless and in fairly constant pain.
But what about the mind of a chronically stressed person? What happens to your brain when stress is the norm and emotional stress becomes your reality?
Well, this is your brain on stress. Symptoms of stress in your mental health may look like:
Changes in eating and appetite
Compulsive behaviors like sex, shopping or gambling
Increased use of drugs, smoking or drinking
Increased risk-taking behavior
At their absolute, exaggerated worst, a chronically stressed person might spend their nights on the computer, shopping away while binge-drinking alcohol. They might spend their days in a casino, cutting through a pack a day while plugging coins into a slot machine.
But practically speaking, most people try to function normally, even when their stress is at an all-time high. They might come to work every day exhausted by late nights of sleepless panic — and they might even hide their symptoms well.
Coping with chronic stress isn’t terribly different from coping with occasional stress. The main difference is that you’ll have plenty of time to practice the techniques for reducing stress when the stress occurs regularly.
There are many ways to deal with stress, though most fall into a few categories.
Denying your stress only makes it worse. Experts say admitting a problem is the first step to overcoming it, and that applies to stress perhaps as much as anything else.
Once you’ve acknowledged you’re stressed, you can assess the issue from a place of honesty. Maybe you need to take a break and try to solve the problem with fresh eyes. Maybe you need to rethink your current strategy.
Whatever it is, giving yourself the aerial view and admitting that a stressed person is trying to solve the problem is the best way to get off on the right foot.
You may want to consider unburdening yourself to a willing and supportive friend or family member. Stress tends to become more powerful the more we internalize it. But the second you share how you’re feeling with someone else, that power is reduced — especially when they remind you you’re capable of weathering the current storm.
Remember not to unload your woes onto someone who’s already struggling — or without warning. Dumping your stress on a person who isn’t prepared for it isn’t fair. Besides, it may cause them, you know…stress.
Don’t be disappointed with this strategy — and don’t laugh it off. While we know the last thing most people want to do when they’re overwhelmed is laugh, the truth is that remembering not to take your stressful situation too seriously helps in a number of ways.
Laughing at the situation can help cheer you up. It can also make you feel capable, empowered and moved to act. If nothing else, it’s a good way to release tension before diving back into the problem.
Long-term stress and acute stress might both benefit from a little physical activity. So if your stress levels are rising, and stress effects are showing, you may want to supplement your visits to a mental health professional with visits to a trainer.
The tension we store in our bodies when we’re stressed is technically meant to be employed in a fight-or-flight response. So when your body hits that level of tension and panic, remember that, ideally, the built-up energy has to go somewhere.
Rather than blow it on a coworker, friend, family member or partner later (which is bad and abusive), go blow it on the treadmill, stationary bike or with some free weights.
Oh, and among the long list of exercise benefits is the production of endorphins — the feel-good hormones that can take your mind quite literally from stressed to relaxed. We also have some information on mental health gym.
There are endless apps, guided meditations, grounding exercises and other formal devices for the management of stress. And almost none of them require more than following directions.
You don’t need to join a class, sign into a Zoom call or meet at a park to practice meditation or make use of grounding relaxation techniques. In fact, these things can be done from your desk or bed.
We’ve covered best practices for meditation, strategies for mindfulness and exercises for relaxation and grounding previously, so check out our guides to learn more and practice right now.
If you’re feeling stressed, a vacation from work or some time away from your responsibilities might help you rebalance, recharge and reset. It may give you a new perspective on things that have begun to fill you with dread or exhaust you incessantly.
But taking a vacation might also just make the responsibilities pile up in ways that ultimately increase the weight of the stress you’re feeling. And if your instincts tell you the latter is more likely, it may be time to take your chronic stress seriously and treat it like a mental health issue.
Stress doesn’t go away without action, and when it gets bad, that action has to be more aggressive. A three-day weekend may cure mild stress, but your chronic stress might require therapy, lifestyle changes and even medication.
You won’t know until you do the most important thing: get help.
We’re here to offer that help in every way possible. Our mental health resources can answer your questions about the toll untreated stress takes and offer insight into the causes of stress that might have gotten you here.
Our resources also include online therapy, which you can access 24/7, anywhere you have an internet connection.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, your problems might just need the brain power of two people to solve. Get a partner for fighting stress today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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