You’ve been there. You are going about your day, and suddenly, you’re face to face with a major situation. Maybe it’s a near miss during your commute, you have a huge project with a tight deadline, or you have to speak in front of an audience. Whatever the case, you’ve got to act quick.
Your body is hard-wired to react to stressful situations. But what if you always feel on edge? Chronic stress is a contributor to a host of long-term health issues, which can wreak havoc on your body. But there is no need to panic. While you can’t always control life, you can practice healthy habits to de-stress regularly. Here’s what you need to know about the long-term effects of chronic stress and how to combat them.
The Science of “Fight or Flight”
Stress often gets a bad rap, but in small doses, it’s vital to your well-being. When your body detects a stressful situation, it triggers a physiological reaction, commonly called the “fight or flight” response. When you detect danger, your brain sends a distress signal to its command center in the hypothalamus, which in turn communicates to your body’s autonomic nervous system. Your body then releases a series of stress hormones like adrenaline (cue: pounding heart) and cortisol, which fuels your body with increased sugars and temporarily curbs bodily functions like digestion. As your lungs take in more oxygen, your heart pumps more blood to your muscles, preparing your body to react by running away (flight) or defending yourself (fight). Scientists credit this response for helping humans and other mammals survive life-threatening situations and evolve. Today, it gives us the juice we need to respond to a time-sensitive event, ASAP.
How Much Stress is Too Much?
When there’s too much stress, it starts to interfere with our lives. A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Society found that 45% of American adults say they lose sleep from stress — a sure sign of being too stressed.
Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system to launch the fight-or-flight response, explains California-based psychotherapist Erica Basso, MA, AMFT. “In modern day, we are in our sympathetic nervous systems way too often. Being activated daily from stress at work, parenting, or arguments with a spouse, our bodies stay on high alert and are unable to return to baseline.”
Physical Symptoms of Stress
What does stress do to the body? Prolonged periods of elevated stress on the body can lead to serious long-term problems like increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and other illnesses. Chronic stress can make people more susceptible to colds. And with a suppressed immune system, recovering is more difficult.
But there’s good news, too. Our bodies have a built-in alert system that tells us when something’s not right by showing physical signs of stress.
“From joint pain to chest aches, if you find yourself experiencing unexplained pain, it could be due to invisible stress,” says Bryan Bruno, MD, psychiatrist and medical director at Mid City TMS in New York City. “Stress can increase your body’s ability to store fat, as well as make you overeat and get a craving for sweets, inevitably leading to weight gain.”
Looking for some other common red flags can help you course-correct before your health takes a turn for the worse. The Mayo Clinic advises to keep a lookout for these common physical stress symptoms:
- Muscle aches and pains
- Chest pain
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Upset stomach
- Changes in your sex drive
Emotional Symptoms of Stress
Unsurprisingly, chronic stress is disruptive to mental health as well. Some common effects include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory impairment
- Irritability and/or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Insomnia and/or other sleep issues
Get emergency help immediately if you have chest pain, especially if it coincides with any of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Jaw or back pain
- Pain radiating into your shoulder and arm
5 Ways to Combat Chronic Stress
Stress in the right amount is just what we need to perform at our best. So what’s the trick to striking that balance? One recent study found that lingering daily stress was associated with greater levels of chronic diseases and poorer function over the long term. Therefore, recovering from everyday stressors may have an important role in good physical health.
There’s no catch to this secret. By creating healthy routines and reinforcing good habits, you may learn to leave your stress at the door. Try these steps to create a solid foundation for combating chronic stress.
1. Exercise Regularly
You’ve heard it once, and you’ll hear it again, exercise is essential for good health. And it’s not just going to the gym. Simply being active boosts your body’s production of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones that put that pep in your step after a brisk walk or an invigorating hike. Whether you’re a gardener, jogger, yogi, or none of the above, whatever gets you moving counts. Pet parent? Even better. Our furry friends are naturals at melting away stress, and most dogs will get you running around one way or another.
2. Nourish Your Body
Eating a healthy balanced diet is an important part of coping with stress. “Other than danger, the primary reason the body releases excess adrenaline is simply to raise sugar levels for the brain through a process called gluconeogenesis,” Michael Platt, MD, the author of “Adrenaline Dominance,” said in an email. “By supplying the brain with its necessary fuel, the body does not need to release adrenaline.” That’s a good reason to fuel up with nourishing foods and avoid those feelings of hunger.
3. Finding “Me Time”
Daily stressors add up. And simply being around people who are stressed can spike your stress levels. Taking a break from all the hubbub is not only healthy, but it might also be necessary. Like exercise, your “me time” can be anything that helps you unwind, relax, and take a meaningful break from being in “fight” mode.
4. Watch Your Screen Time
Before you start streaming your favorite show, consider this: Binge watching (something 75% of us do) has been linked to poor sleep quality, increased fatigue, and insomnia — all of which may only worsen stress. Instead, try healthier ways to de-stress like exploring nature, meditating, reading a good book, or cooking (and eating!) your favorite healthy dish.
5. Talk to Your Doctor
For many adults, regular stress management isn’t enough. This is where your doctor can help. Younger adults are more likely to receive or to have received treatment or therapy most; 37% of Gen Z and 35% of millennials report seeking help from a mental health professional, compared with 26% of Gen Xers and 22% of boomers. If you’re struggling with chronic stress, a doctor can be just the resource you need to find long-term relief.