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Relieving Chronic Stress Can Improve Your Health

A build-up of stressors can lead to long-term symptoms and more serious health issues. Adopting healthy behaviors can prevent them.


Relieving Chronic Stress Can Improve Your Health

A build-up of stressors can lead to long-term symptoms and more serious health issues. Adopting healthy behaviors can prevent them.

Every day, you put yourself into stressful situations — whether you realize it or not. The temporary jitters of meeting somebody new. The racing heart when you merge into traffic on your morning commute.

You’re hardwired that way. And that stress can actually be a good thing. You’re alert, aware and in-the-moment so you can navigate your stress-inducing situation and survive.

But there’s another side of stress. It’s not a moment or even a bad day. Instead, it’s a bad month or year — or worse. Things can build up slowly and wear you down or happen suddenly and unexpectedly but linger for a long time.

The stress never leaves. And it starts affecting your daily life — your outlook on the world, your relationships, your job.

Stressed woman sits with her heads in her hands in front of her laptop computer

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That constant stressed-out feeling is chronic stress.

Those small moments of acute stress are easy to overcome. You do it all the time. Your body produces a stress hormone called cortisol to alert you to the issue. As soon as the perceived threat passes, your cortisol levels return to normal and so does your stress.

When your stressors pile up or always present, and you can’t find ways to relieve them, you have chronic stress. You feel stressed out — and then some.

Cortisol increases your blood sugar, slows nonessential bodily functions like the immune and digestive systems and alters your mood. Consistently high cortisol levels disrupt the natural state of your body and leave you with some serious symptoms:

  • Irritability – Your heightened state leaves you on edge. You’re more like to lose your patience or completely lose your cool.
  • Fatigue – Maintaining a constant level of alertness drains your energy. You feel tired, unmotivated and unfocused. Your libido and drive to exercise both suffer.
  • Anxiety – You’re excessively nervous or worried about your stressors and feel overwhelmed by them.
  • Depression – When you can’t shake your stressors, it can make you feel as if you’re in an impossible situation. Combined with the fatigue, that can leave you feeling sad and depressed and lead to social withdrawal.
  • Insomnia – The hyperarousal from stress makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Instead, you toss and turn and lie awake worrying about your stressors — and the resulting lack of sleep.
  • Tension headaches – If you’ve had a rough stretch, you’ve likely experienced a stress headache. It’s the most common type of headache and is directly related to your stressors and all the other symptoms they cause.

Chronic stress symptoms can turn into chronic health conditions.

When stress starts affecting your ability to live your life, it turns dangerous. The longer it lasts, the more dangerous it gets. In additional to serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression, the physical effects of stress take their toll, resulting in poor health.

Stress-Induced Obesity

It’s called stress eating for a reason. Many people cope with hard times by eating to make themselves feel better. Chronic stress can lead to overeating, weight gain and obesity. One study found that high cortisol levels over long periods of time leads to weight issues. Patients with chronic stress weighed more, had larger waistlines and had higher BMIs than people with low cortisol levels.

Substance Abuse

It’s not just eating. Everyone handles stress in different ways. Some people turn to unhealthy behaviors like alcohol abuse, smoking or drug abuse. This form of self-medication is a major risk factor for addiction. And the greater number of stressors in your life, the greater your odds of addiction. The substance abuse itself is a problem but it can lead to overdose, diseases like lung cancer or liver disease and even suicide.

Cardiovascular Disease

Stress activates the fight-or-flight response system that makes your heart beat faster. When this system’s always on, your heart has to work harder all the time. Your blood pressure rises, leading to hypertension and heart disease. That increases your risk of having a heart attack or suffering a stroke.

Weakened Immune System

In the moment, stressful situations boost your immune system. Stress hormones tell it to repair cells to avoid infection or heal wounds. In the long run, though, stress has the opposite effect. Your defenses against disease and illness are lowered. You’re more likely to get sick, and when you do fall ill, it takes longer to recover.

Stress management doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders.

There are many ways to relieve stress. They aren’t different from living a healthy lifestyle overall — exercise, eat right, pursue relaxing activities and spend time with your family and friends. Doing all of them will help you handle your stress, reduce the symptoms of chronic stress and prevent its long-term effects.

But take your time. Starting a new exercise routine, switching up your diet and searching for relaxation techniques or hobbies all at once could actually add stress to your life. Small steps have a positive effect. And when you gradually stack health-related commitments one at a time, it has a cumulative effect that can help resolve your chronic stress.

Sometimes you can’t handle it all on your own. And that’s okay. Normal levels of stress often become chronic stress when people are struggling to find stress relief by themselves. If you can adopt some healthy habits and do them alongside friends and family or in groups, it adds in a social support system that can increase the stress-reducing benefits.

If the effects of stress are adding up and starting to cause you mental distress and physical symptoms, talk to your primary care provider. Many signs of chronic stress are symptoms of other health issues. You could be feeling stressed but have an underlying condition that’s contributing to it. Your provider can rule out or identify other causes and guide you to the help you need to manage your chronic stress and prevent long-term health consequences.

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