What is Chronic Stress?

Stress Management Techniques Are Important If You Have Chronic Stress

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Chronic stress is a prolonged and constant feeling of stress that can negatively affect your health if it goes untreated. It can be caused by the everyday pressures of balancing family and work or by traumatic situations. In order to begin managing chronic stress, we must understand what it is, what may be causing it and how it affects our entire body.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress results from a state of ongoing physiological arousal.

This occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis.

This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal. It affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly. We were built to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is steady over a long period of time.

What Causes Chronic Stress?

This type of chronic stress response occurs all too frequently from our modern lifestyle. Everything from high-pressured jobs to loneliness to busy traffic can keep the body in a state of perceived threat and chronic stress.

In this case, our fight-or-flight response, which was designed to help us fight a few life-threatening situations spaced out over a long period (like being attacked by a bear every so often), can wear down our bodies and cause us to become ill, either physically or emotionally.

In fact, it’s estimated that up to 90% of doctor’s visits are for conditions in which stress plays a role! That's why it is so important to learn stress management techniques and make healthy lifestyle changes to safeguard yourself from the negative impact of chronic stress.

Examples of Acute vs. Chronic Stress

There are many life events that cause both acute and chronic stress.

To put the two into perspective, here are a few examples.

Acute Stress is Short-Term

Acute stress can occur when you get into a car accident. You not only have to deal with police reports, insurance companies and assessing the damage to yourself and your car, but you need to find out how to get to work the next day.

Most of these problems will be worked out within a week (maybe as long as a month) and shortly after the accident your initial stress is relieved because the situation is under control. At least you are safe!

Another example is when you are working on an important project for work. You put in long hours and have a tight and looming deadline. This can cause many stressful days as you fine tune all of the details. However, once the project is submitted, you can relax.

In this case, your stress may have actually helped you perform better because not all stress is bad.

Chronic Stress is Long-Term

On the other hand, if your family is struggling financially or with a severe illness, the stress can become chronic.

Someone in your home may not be able to work, bills are piling up and your home is nearing foreclosure and this can leave you stressed for months or even a year or more.

Your constant worry wears down your body, making you feel tired and anxious. You may be working harder than ever to make ends meet and make unhealthy choices about food and exercise, which can make you feel even worse. This can lead to serious depression among other health concerns.

We can also have chronic stress related to work. Many jobs require a lot out from us and it can often feel like you never get a break or are always under pressure to perform.

Working overtime, constant travel and high-pressure business relations can keep your body in a constant state of excitement, even when you get home to your family. This can also add to the wear and tear on your body and the continuous stress can contribute to serious health issues like heart disease or lead to a heart attack.

If You Are Experiencing Chronic Stress

It is important to begin using stress management techniques as early as possible when you recognize chronic stress in your life. This works for a few reasons.

Fast-acting stress relievers can reverse the stress response so your body has a chance to recover and your mind has a chance to approach problems from a proactive stance rather than to react from a stressed or even panicked perspective. When you're making choices from a more relaxed and confident place, you tend to make choices that are more in-line with your best interests and avoid creating more stress for yourself.

Longer-term healthy habits can also be important to implement because they can build resilience and give you chances to take a break from stress on a regular basis.  This can help you to keep from staying stressed so constantly that you don't realize how stressed you are, which can keep you from taking steps to reduce the stress in your life. It can also save you from the more negative effects of chronic stress. Some of the most effective habits include exercise, meditation, and journaling, as they have been shown to promote resilience to stress

Changing how you respond to stress can help as well. By making changes to reduce the stressful situations you face (saying no more often, for example) and by changing the way you look at the situations you face (reminding yourself of the resources you can use and the strength you possess) can both help. Approaching stress from a proactive stance can help reduce chronic stress

You may also need to speak to a doctor or therapist, which can be very effective. If you have tried other strategies and feel you need more, or if you feel these will not be enough to help, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor about your concerns. There is effective help available, and it can be used in addition to all of these suggestions.

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