Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Often the stress is acute (short term) and goes away quickly. When stress persists and becomes continuous, it is called chronic stress.
In the short term, stress can be beneficial. It helps you avoid danger, manage immediate situations and build resilience. However, if stress is prolonged, occurs too often or is not well managed, it can have negative effects on health.
Read on to learn more about chronic stress and how it can be managed.
What is chronic stress?
The body has a built-in system for dealing with stress called the stress response (also known as the “fight or flight” response). When an acute stressor arises, the body responds with various brain and body reactions, such as the release of adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisolwhich prepares us to face the potential threat.
The response is meant to be momentary, and the body tries to maintain homeostasis (stability during change) and return to normal once the stressor has been addressed. If the stress persists, however, the body cannot return to its baseline level and hormones like cortisol levels can stay elevated for too long.
How common is stress?
The American Institute of Stress found that 55% of Americans experience daily stress, which is 20% higher than the global average. The most common source is work-related stress, with up to 94% of people reporting feeling stressed at work.
Examples of chronic stress
The causes of chronic stress are unique to the individual, but there are common sources of stress (both positive and negative). These include:
- Family changes: Marriage or divorce, birth of a child, death of a loved one, relationship/family problems, etc.
- Work: Starting a new job, losing a job, retiring, difficulties at work, not finding a job, etc.
- Financial: Having money problems, difficulty meeting basic needs such as housing or food, etc.
- life changes: Moving, starting a new school, etc.
- Health: Serious illness (in oneself or a loved one), life stages (such as menopause), physical conditions (for example, sleep apnea can increase cortisol levels), etc.
- Routine events: Traffic/travel, family responsibilities and commitments, etc.
Types of chronic stress
The causes of chronic stress can be physical, mental or emotional and tend to fall into the following categories:
- Location related
- work related
Stress is associated with a number of symptoms.
Stress can cause fatigue and is associated with other conditions that can also cause fatigue. People who see a doctor for stress-related burnout often also have depression or anxiety.
The gastrointestinal system contains hundreds of millions of neurons that communicate with the brain. This is why we sometimes feel “butterflies in the stomach”. It also means that stress can trigger or exacerbate gastrointestinal discomfort, such as:
Stress can cause changes in gut bacteria, which can affect mood. Stress can also affect digestion and nutrient absorption.
Gastrointestinal problems associated with stress particularly affect people with chronic intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.
Does stress cause ulcers?
Despite popular belief, stomach ulcers are usually caused by bacterial infection, not stress. However, ulcers can bother you more when you are stressed.
Stress can cause trouble sleeping, and trouble sleeping can exacerbate stress. Problems with the quantity or quality of sleep can have health consequences and are associated with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mental health problems.
Aches and pains
Stress causes muscle tension. This reflex is beneficial for protecting the body during acute stressful situations and should relax when the stressor has passed. However, chronic stress can cause muscle tension for long periods of time. This can lead to :
Common illnesses and infections
The stress response and the hormones that are released protect the body in threatening situations by stimulating the immune system, but can weaken the immune system if stress persists and stress hormone levels remain high.
It can reduce the body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders, making you more susceptible to viral illnesses (like colds or flu) or other infections, and increasing recovery time after illness or injury.
Eating under stress
During acute stress, the release of adrenaline can temporarily suppress appetite. Another stress hormone, cortisol, increases appetite and can increase motivation (including motivation to eat). If stress persists and cortisol remains elevated, increased eating (“stress eating”) may occur.
Sex and reproductive effects
Stress can affect sex and reproduction in the following ways:
- Decreased libido
- Sperm production and maturation
- Menstrual changes (such as irregular cycles, PMS, or painful periods)
- Conception, pregnancy and postpartum adjustment
Other complications of chronic stress include:
Chronic stress is caused by prolonged or repeated exposure to the same or multiple stressors. Frequent activation of the stress response leads to increased exposure to stress hormones.
Systemic stressors can also lead to chronic stress. This can include stress that stems from discrimination, trauma, or inequities related to factors such as:
- Discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation
- Lack of access to adequate education
- Negative childhood experiences
- Lack of access to health services
Systemic stressors need to be addressed through systemic change, not just individual stress management.
What are the effects of chronic stress?
Chronic stress is associated with a number of health problems, including:
How do we deal with chronic stress?
The approach to stress management is often multi-faceted, including lifestyle changes, social support efforts, mindfulness, and seeking professional help.
Way of life
Some lifestyle changes you can make to help combat stress include:
Social support efforts that can help combat stress include:
- Spend time with friends and family
- Engage in physical affection with loved ones or pets
- Join a support group online or in person
- Get involved in the community by taking classes, volunteering, or joining clubs
Although it’s easier said than done, relaxing can reduce stress. Some relaxation techniques include:
- Mind-body approaches such as mindfulness, deep breathing, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, meditation or yoga
- Be creative or participate in activities you enjoy, such as music, dancing, reading, writing, crafts, or gardening
- Express your emotions by laughing or crying
Other practical ways to reduce stress
Being practical about how your lifestyle influences your stress level can help. Ways to achieve this include:
- Identify your stressors
- Look for solutions
- Plan ahead how to handle stress when it arises
Chronic stress cannot always be effectively managed on your own. A mental health professional can help you with strategies through:
Depending on the symptoms, antidepressants or anxiolytics may also be prescribed. Discuss medication options with your healthcare provider if you think they might benefit your stress management plan.
When to seek help for stress
Talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you:
- feel overwhelmed
- Having fears you can’t control
- Having memories of a traumatic event
- Are unable to function well at home, school, or work
- Feeling that you need help for some reason
If you or someone close to you is experiencing stress that is leading to suicidal thoughts, call 911 immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more mental health resources, check out our national helpline database.
Stress can be acute, chronic or episodic. In the short term, stress is beneficial, allowing us to react to threatening situations and building our resilience. Chronic stress, however, is not helpful and can cause health issues such as mental health issues, gastrointestinal discomfort, and sleep disturbances. It is also associated with several health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
Chronic stress management approaches include lifestyle practices, relaxation techniques, and social support. Some people may also find it helpful to see a health care provider or mental health professional.
A word from Verywell
Chronic stress is not only unpleasant, it can significantly affect your physical and mental health. If you feel overwhelmed or often feel stressed, talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional to assess your stress level and develop a stress management plan.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does stress affect the body?
Stress can have behavioral, emotional, physical and social effects. Stress affects various bodily functions, including:
How to test for chronic stress?
Health care providers, mental health professionals and other specialists can gather information by talking to the person, having them complete a questionnaire, checking for physical symptoms (such as assessing hormone levels or finding a physical cause of the stress) and carrying out tests (such as blood tests) if they see fit.
How long does it take to heal from stress?
Recovery from stress depends on several factors, including the type of stress (acute or chronic), the cause of the stress, the individual characteristics of the person and the treatment involved (if any).