Chronic stress is a condition in which a person experiences prolonged periods of psychological and emotional distress. It often occurs when faced with a difficult or ongoing situation such as coping with job loss, dealing with relationship problems, or struggling to manage financial difficulties. It is important to understand the symptoms of chronic stress so that we can identify it early and take steps to manage it.
Let’s dive into what chronic stress looks like, and how you can identify it in yourself and others.
The Physical Symptoms of Chronic Stress
The physical symptoms of chronic stress include tension headaches, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite or weight, and digestive issues. Other physical symptoms may include heart palpitations, chest pain, increased blood pressure, and frequent colds or infections.
Headaches: Chronic stress can cause frequent headaches, particularly tension headaches that cause pain on both sides of the head.
Digestive Issues: Stress can affect the digestive system, leading to symptoms such as nausea, cramps, diarrhoea, and constipation.
Fatigue: Feeling exhausted all the time is a common symptom of chronic stress.
Insomnia: Difficulty sleeping or getting enough sleep is another sign of chronic stress.
Muscle Tension: Muscle tension and aches can occur due to excess cortisol production from chronic stress.
Low Libido: Stress can lower sex drive in both men and women due to changes in hormone levels caused by stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Weight Gain/Loss: Chronic stress can lead to excessive weight gain or loss due to changes in metabolism and eating habits related to the stress response.
Weakened Immune System: Stress can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off colds and infections.
Anxiety & Panic Attacks: Stress can lead to heightened anxiety levels which may trigger panic attacks or make them more likely to occur than usual unrelated to specific triggers like phobias or social situations
If you have been experiencing any combination of these physical symptoms for more than two weeks without relief, talk to your doctor as this could be an indication that your body is reacting to excessive stress in your life.
The Emotional Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Emotional symptoms of chronic stress can be just as detrimental as physical symptoms. They tend to manifest in feelings such as irritability, anger, sadness, anxiety, and depression. People who are constantly dealing with stress may also find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions, and feel overwhelmed by their day-to-day tasks.
Irritability: Feeling easily frustrated or agitated can be a sign of chronic stress.
Mood Swings: Stress can lead to sudden changes in mood which can make it difficult to stay emotionally stable.
Difficulty Concentrating: Chronic stress can cause impaired focus and concentration which may make completing tasks more difficult than usual.
Low Self-Esteem: Feeling down on oneself can stem from the physical and emotional effects of chronic stress and lead to feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.
Depressed Mood: Stress that is prolonged over time can lead to depression due to changes in brain chemistry associated with the body’s stress response.
Loss of Interest in Activities: Chronic stress can sap the motivation for activities that were previously enjoyable, leading to an overall decrease in pleasure and satisfaction from life experiences.
Behavioural Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Behavioural changes are another common symptom of chronic stress. These changes can manifest in different ways depending on how you cope with stress but some common signs include substance abuse, social withdrawal, change in eating habits (overeating or not eating enough), and poor decision making due to impaired judgment caused by chronic stress overload.
Withdrawal from Relationships: Chronic stress can lead to a decrease in social interactions as a way to cope with the difficult situation.
Conflict with Other People: Stress can cause individuals to become more argumentative with those close to them or even strangers.
Changes in Eating Habits: Stress can lead individuals to either overeat or undereat, depending on the type of food they are accustomed to when feeling overwhelmed.
Increase in Alcohol Consumption or Substance Abuse: Individuals may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with the effects of long-term stress.
Increase in Risk-Taking Behaviour: When under chronic stress, people may be tempted to take risks that could further complicate their situation such as gambling, impulsive spending, or unsafe sexual activities.
Poor Sleep Patterns: Ongoing stress can cause poor sleeping habits leading to an overall decrease in energy levels, focus and productivity during the day.
Managing Chronic Stress
If any of the physical, emotional or behavioural symptoms mentioned above ring a bell, it is important to take proactive steps towards managing the stress in your life.
Chronic stress can be a difficult thing to manage but there are steps you can take to help reduce the effects it has on your life –
Identify Your Stressors: Taking the time to understand what is causing your stress can help you develop a plan of action to tackle the source.
Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Finding positive outlets to manage and channel stress such as exercise, journaling or art can be a great way to cope with overwhelming emotions.
Reach Out for Support: Talking to family and friends, or professional help when necessary, is important in times of stress, as connecting with others can give you the strength needed to face challenges.
Practice Relaxation Techniques: Taking some time out of your day to engage in activities like meditation or yoga can help create an environment of relaxation and calm.
Make Small Adjustments: Even simply changing up routine aspects of life such as diet, attitude and sleep patterns may have profound effects on reducing overall stress levels.
Seek Professional Help: If chronic stress begins to feel unmanageable, seeking professional help from a therapist or psychologist may be beneficial in managing difficult emotions associated with prolonged periods of distress.
Chronic stress is something we all face at some point in our lives, but if left unmanaged it can lead to serious consequences on both our mental and physical health. By understanding the common warning signs associated with chronic stress we can better identify it within ourselves and others, enabling us to take proactive steps to manage it properly before things get worse.
With intentional effort anyone can learn how to manage their own levels of chronic stress and create a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.