How To Cope With Chronic Stress In 2023
Are you feeling more irritated, scared, angry, tired or even completely spent? Are you becoming “unglued” these days?
Is watching the news of the day causing your stress levels to shoot up to where you become exasperated, irate, frightened and too worked up to sleep well?
Have you been feeling this way for a while now?
If that is the case you are probably dealing with chronic stress or stress overload. In other words you are becoming truly “stressed out”.
Unfortunately this condition is currently affecting millions of people and their families.
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 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 hurricane, economic pressures or the threat of a life threatening illness such as Covid-19.
All of us are subject to the downturns of life and in 2020 these downturns are quite real. However, some people are more susceptible to experiencing everyday life as an overly hostile environment, one in which feelings of urgency and fear prevail. They tend to panic and make hasty decisions.
The Biology of Stress
Stress is an extremely important protective mechanism for 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 the hormone adrenaline.
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 and we could become burned out.
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, 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.
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.
Realistically evaluate the current situation: When we are stressed out and feeling anxious we tend to overstate the severity of our circumstances. It is not to say that we shouldn’t have a strategy for a “worse case scenario”, however things are not always worse case. It is imperative to see things clearly and not cause yourself more stress unnecessarily. For example, it is one thing to stay current with the news of the day. It would be counter productive however, to become obsessed with it.
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. This is a form of meditation.
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 may seem obvious. Every study shows the benefits of getting any form of exercise. It will help to reduce stress and is essential for well-being. Exercise by itself will not prevent stress but it can help reduce it, help you feel better and calm you down.
Cut down on alcohol: Regularly drinking too much will compromise your immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness, cause sleep problems, reduce your creativity, blunt your sharpness of mind and cloud your judgment. If you’re drinking a bottle of wine at one sitting, several shots of hard liquor or having many beers each night you are probably drinking too much.
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. Establish a routine that you can do every day. Doing so will help you to be more productive.
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 and listen 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 yourself stress. Deadlines can creep up quickly and you may find yourself becoming frantic because you procrastinated. Make use of the time you have as we are all being asked to spend more time at home.
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: If others look to you for leadership or guidance in times of great stress, it is imperative that you adopt a confident attitude. Dealing with things with clarity, poise and assurance, even under the most stressful conditions, can lift your spirits and inspire others. Don’t fall victim to negative self talk. One can be realistic, pragmatic and positive all at the same time.
Other articles on coping with stress you may find interesting:
Information on the Coronavirus, Covid-19
Check the World Health Organization for the best advice on Covid-19
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with individuals struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and work life balance.
He also specializes in treating couples and business partners dealing with relationship issues.