Chronic Stress – How bad is it, and how to deal with it?

Chronic stress is a persistent feeling of stress that can manifest itself psychologically and/or physiologically. But when is stress becoming too much? How can you notice and what can you do about it?

What is chronic stress?

Chronic stress is a persistent feeling of stress that can manifest itself psychologically and/or physiologically. It can be caused by internal (e.g. feelings or expectations) or external stressors (e.g. financial problems, noise, or major life pressure at work) and can affect your health negatively if not treated.

To make it more tangible, let me explain it like this: I recently started working as a psychologist in Berlin. The morning before my first consultation I found myself grinding my teeth, sweating, and a little shaky. I could feel my heart pounding, which I usually don’t, and I felt a strong urge for action. I quickly realized that I was having an acute stress reaction in anticipation of my first consultation. 

What I was experiencing is referred to as the fight-or-flight response. This is a perfectly healthy and normal reaction of our bodies to stressful events. In the face of threats or challenges, our body releases cortisol and norepinephrine into our bloodstream. These two are known as “stress hormones”, and their job is to give us a burst of energy and alertness to overcome obstacles. 

Have a look at the graph below:

Stress curve

Too little stress = low motivation and little engagement 

Moderate stress = challenged and engaged 

Too much stress = overwhelming and performance is compromised

Stress in moderate amounts is healthy and necessary!

Too much stress on the other hand can compromise our performance. This doesn’t only apply to short-lived reactions like the one I had before my first consult, but also to long periods of feeling pressured and overwhelmed. When our fight-or-flight response is constantly triggered, and our body is exposed to cortisol and norepinephrine without a break, we are not talking about an acute stress response anymore, but about a state of chronic stress.  

What causes chronic stress?

There is not a single cause of chronic stress. Some environmental factors that contribute to this state can vary from

  • crowded cities and traffic jams 
  • to unfulfilling jobs 
  • and constant bad news on social media or in the news

The way we think about these environmental factors is going to have a huge impact on our stress response. Thinking about events as negative, threatening, uncontrollable, and bad for us will certainly trigger our fight-or-flight response and contribute to a state of chronic stress.

What are the symptoms of chronic stress?

Some common symptoms of chronic stress include:

Symptoms of stress

When sustained over long periods chronic stress can impact our mental and physical health. For instance, it could set the ground for depression, anxiety, and/or chronic pain. Moreover, chronic stress can dampen the immune system making us more prone to disease. 

Constant exposure to cortisol and norepinephrine affects the gastrointestinal system by drying out the intestinal tract resulting in irritable bowel syndrome. Last but not least, chronic stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. 

I’m stressed out! What now? – How chronic stress can be treated

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. There are ways to manage stress, prevent it from becoming chronic, and recover from it. 

Perception. – The idea is not to get rid of stress. As we said before, stress is a normal reaction that helps us perform our best. That is why it’s important to befriend stress and welcome it into our lives. 

How? We can start by asking ourselves: am I perceiving these events as challenging or threatening? Perceiving events as challenges can help us feel less anxious, more relaxed, and more confident. 

“My graduate studies were really competitive. Sometimes, it was difficult for me to keep up, and I found myself comparing myself to my classmates. I later understood that the competition was against myself and not against others. I decided to measure my success based on who I was becoming, and my challenge was to become a little better every day. I did have control over this challenge, and it quickly became easier for me to see my success.” 

Social connection. – Researchers from the Max Plank Institute in Germany found that oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” can help us recover faster from stressful events [1]. One of the best ways to stimulate oxytocin production is to reach out to people we love and who care about us. Engaging in behaviors that benefit others like sharing, cooperating, with others volunteering, and helping can do the job as well. 

Set your boundaries. – When dealing with too much stress, setting our boundaries is essential. We might likely be spending our time on things that are not valuable to us. We might be wasting our energy on irrelevant tasks. If you are not very sure of where your boundaries lay, take the time to look at the questions below and answer them mindfully. They might give you a hint!

How am I spending my time?

What matters to me the most? Am I spending enough time doing those things?

Am I engaging in activities that are aligned with my values and priorities?

Based on past experiences, what fills me up with energy and helps me recharge before I face the world again?

Sleep and rest. - Watch out for your sleeping patterns. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2009, 47% of adults say they lay awake in bed because of stress [2]. To improve your sleep try establishing a sleeping routine where you practice self-care. You can start by winding down an hour before bed. During this time avoid stimulating time on the screen, practice relaxing exercises, take a soothing bath, and listen to relaxing music or a podcast. The idea is to signal your body that bedtime is approaching. 

If you have been in a state of chronic stress, know that you are not the only one. Recovering from it will depend on several things, including personal factors and lifestyle. Sometimes we might need a little extra help to recover from it. If that is the case don’t hesitate to reach out to a coach, psychologist, or therapist. It might be the perfect time to work on yourself! 

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Sources
  • [1] Enger V., Koester, A., Riepenhausen, A., & Singer, T. (2016). Boosting recovery rather than buffering reactivity: Higherstress-induced oxytocin secretion is associated with increased cortisol reactivity and faster vagal recovery after acute psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 74, 111-120
  • [2] American Psychological Association. (2009). Stress in America in 2009. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2009/stress-exec-summary.pdf

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