Chronic Stress, What It Is, Who Gets It and What To Do About It
Do you often feel irritated, angry, tired or even completely spent? Are you becoming “unglued” at times? Have you been experiencing these stressful symptoms for a while?
If that is the case you are probably dealing with chronic stress or stress overload. In other words you have become truly “stressed out”. Unfortunately this condition affects millions of people and their families every year.
In this post I will explain how it works and what to do about it.
What Is Chronic Stress?
Chronic stress is a prolonged stress response. It is also, therefore, a major contributor to poor health, disease and death. Almost every aspect of a person’s life, physical and mental, can be affected by chronic stress.
Chronic stress can occur when a person is faced with protracted distress such as the aftermath of a bad hurricane or the life threatening illness of a loved one.
Although all of us are subject to the downturns of life, some people are more susceptible to experiencing everyday life as a hostile environment, one in which feelings of urgency and fear tend to prevail.
The Physiological Aspects of Stress
Stress is an extremely important protective mechanism for humans and all the animal kingdom. We are designed by nature to detect danger and for the mind and body to become stressed as a result. When we perceive the danger in our midst our brain signals the body to release adrenaline (a hormone).
The adrenaline increases the amount of sugar in the blood and spikes the heart rate. The pituitary gland is also signaled to release cortisol, the other powerful hormone that serves to keep the blood sugar and heart rate up. All this hormonal activity is triggered expressly for the purpose of taking action: running away from danger or confronting it.
The Stress Response
This response is typically called the stress response. When it gets triggered all the parts of the body that are urgently needed are put to use immediately. All the other parts that aren’t urgently needed are either shut down or commanded to reduce functioning.
All this stress focuses our energy on the task of protecting ourselves as efficiently as possible. Once we accomplish the task of self-protection the mind and body returns to normal functioning. The stress response is meant to be short-term.
Effects of Chronic Stress
If, on the other hand, we experienced a continuous stress response throughout the day, week, month or year(s), the effect that these hormones would produce could be catastrophic.
Our blood pressure might be high all the time (potentially causing a stroke or heart condition); our digestion might be faulty (gastrointestinal disease can occur); we might contract diabetes due to high blood sugar; memory might be negatively affected due to improper blood flow to the brain; and our immune system might become compromised.
Who is Likely to Have Chronic Stress?
People who are more susceptible to having this condition may have the following characteristics:
- They often act as if everything is an emergency
- They need everything to be perfect
- They are often micro managers
- They need to control everything
- They often consider others incompetent
- They may get angry easily
- They rarely enjoy the moment and are often thinking about something else
- They often have a dark or negative view of things
- They can be unreasonable or bullheaded
- They think they are always right
- They can’t take criticism, even though it may be constructive
- They see things as black or white with little or no grey areas
- They may get angry or depressed easily
This type of person tends to elevate their hormonal levels by virtue of the way they view the world, ultimately causing themselves more unnecessary stress for longer periods of time.
Typically a person with this condition has gotten accustomed to feeling and behaving this way. It is often because of the involvement of family or friends that a person suffering with chronic stress decides to get help or make changes. (See my page on Stress Management Training).
Top 10 Tips To Reduce Your Stress
We are all creatures of habit and develop patterns of behavior we rely on, even if these patterns are dysfunctional. Breaking old habits is not easy. In the case of chronic stress however, changing the patterns that got you there in the first place may save your life.
Practice relaxing: Take a few minutes to close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself to relax. You can program your mind to calm down with just a little practice. You can also take a warm bath, stretch several times a day or just take a 5 minute nap. Do this every day and you will notice an improvement in your stress level.
Sleep: If you are not sleeping well or are sleep deprived you will likely perform poorly at work, feel irritable and be short tempered. Sleep deprivation is often a major contributor to chronic stress.
Exercise: This is an obvious no brainer. Every study shows the benefits of getting any form of exercise. It will help to reduce stress and is essential for wellbeing. Exercise by itself may not prevent stress but it will help you feel better.
Cut down on alcohol: If you drink more than a glass or two of wine, hard liquor or have more than one or two beers each night you are probably drinking too much. Drinking too much will wear you down, reduce your creativity and can potentially cloud your judgment.
Laugh a lot: Laugh often, lighten up, be a little less serious and try finding the humor in things. You’ll cheer others up and enjoy yourself more often. Laughing is good for you physically and mentally and can help put things in perspective.
Get organized: Lack of organization can lead to unnecessary frustration and stress. Freeing yourself of clutter and learning better time management skills can go a long way to reducing stress and preventing burnout.
Express yourself: Be assertive not aggressive and say what’s on your mind and in your heart in an effective, respectful way at work and at home. Don’t let resentment and anger build up. Talk to the people you care about and who care about you.
Don’t procrastinate: If you often find yourself putting things off or avoiding what you know needs to be done you are unnecessarily causing stress. Deadlines can creep up quickly and you may find yourself becoming frantic because you procrastinated.
Learn to compromise: Negotiation is a fundamental principal in business, politics and life. If you want something you have to give something. Everybody wins when there is flexibility.
Stay positive: Have positive references handy so you can call upon them when you are stressed and feeling gloomy. Know the things in your life that you are grateful for and think about them often. Stop beating yourself up with negative self-talk. It is time to change your attitude and perspective.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers and intimacy. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work life balance.