Chronic Stress What it is and What you Can Do | Kristen McClure Therapist


It’s no secret that stress can take a toll on your health. But what you may not realize is that low-level, chronic stress can be just as harmful as acute stress. When you’re constantly under pressure, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, releasing stress hormones like cortisol. These hormones can suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. Chronic stress can also increase your risk of developing heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to find ways to manage your stress. relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, spending time with loved ones, and getting regular exercise can all help reduce stress levels and improve your overall health.Our bodies are made perfectly to handle and regulate acute stress stress. For example, our sympathetic nervous system turns up and our parasympathetic nervous system turns down. Our stress response hormones increase and cortisol and adrenaline become available. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and elevates the blood pressure ensuring we have the energy to fight predators. Cortisol alters our immune, digestive, and reproductive system ensuring all energy is preserved for our fight or flight needs shutting down everything immediately unnecessarily to preserve energy for survival. It’s phenomenal, really what our bodies do. Soon after, we can return to baseline, and everything goes back to normal!

Imagine, though, that there are no real immediate threats that we need to fight or flee from, but our mind is perceiving them daily, for years and years.

Your boss is hassling you, your spouse and child are stressing you, you worry about paying your bills.
Maybe you have some more significant stress such as you go through a divorce, you lose a loved one, or perhaps, you are highly self-critical ( this is a source of severe strain on our body).
What if we engaged in the stress cycle every single day, many times a day and how taxing on your body this would be?

This is chronic stress, and this is the kind of stress we are not made to endure. But we do. And we are right now. This can be low-level stress that you aren’t very aware of, or it can be chronic high-level stress like the stress that someone in a violent relationship, or at war experiences.

In a nutshell this is why stress is related to almost every single illness there is. If you want to be healthy, be healthy mentally. The mind and body are inseparable.

Chronic Stress and our brain

The Old Brain

Stress is processed in our brain first in the base of our brain. This is our old brain and is mostly involved in processes that have to do with survival. This old brain is not skilled at problem-solving or sophisticated thinking. It didn’t need to be. This brain is reactive in a lot of ways. Once this part of our brain becomes activated, it becomes more and more sensitive. It becomes more likely to perceive things as threats that are not threats. This might help explain why if you have met a person who has been hurt in relationships emotionally many times, they are likely to see emotional threats everywhere in relationships. It also might explain why when there is negative news we can start to get hooked into the news cycle and become more and more frightened, stressed, and unable to think clearly about how to function.

The New Brain or Thinking Brain

It’s important to know that information doesn’t get up to the thinking part of our brain, or the upper part of our brain, until the lower part of our brain, or the old brain, has been calmed down and knows there is no threat. It essentially renders us unable to use our thinking skills while it does it’s thing, which is mobilize our body and help us fight, freeze, or flee. You may recognize you are in one of these states if your are stuck or panicking and feel crazy, depressed or ineffective right now at simple things you normally do.

Example of a Chronic Stressor: The Pandemic

Right now the pandemic we are currently experiencing is a chronic stressor. Some people have lost loved ones, and jobs or their homes. They may be battling financial problems and even experienced the illness themselves. Others may just be experiencing the daily stress of worry about the never-ending cycle of the uncertainty of what is happening.

Tips about Chronic Stress

Remembering that your stress response system is engaged regularly many times a day and your brain is processing danger through the lower level of the brain that processes threat NOT through the reasoning thinking part of the brain, can help you to make choices about how to manage your stress.

To feel better you will need to calm down the lower or reptilian  part of your brain to get to the upper, problem solving part of your brain.

 Facts about Stress What Might be Happening When Under Chronic Stress

You may have trouble sleeping and eating and may find that other parts of your body aren’t functioning as normal, because your physiology has run haywire with your stress response. Your thinking brain isn’t working properly because you don’t have access to it. And, this is the worst part.

your immune system might not be working well

Some signs that your brain is in a stressed place might be

– Insomnia or disrupted sleep
– Brain fog
– Memory problems
– Appetite changes
– Irritability
– Rumination or worry
– Avoidance and procrastination
– Feeling spacey
– Physical Ailments (Gastrointenstinal illness, inflammation related disease, etc)

Bruce Perry who is an expert in regulating the impact of stress on individuals suggests we:

  • Dose our days regularly and frequently ( hourly if possible) with repetitive patterned physical and soothing sensory experiences to help with our stress. These interactions can include:
  • Exercise
  • Interactions with people we love which can be soothing and regulating for your nervous system
  • Yoga
  • Stretching
  • Throwing the ball for our dog

Remember, these intervals must be as frequent as possible to counteract the constant stress we are experiencing. When your body is extremely stressed you need physical activity or interactions with people you love to calm it down.

Other ideas: 

  • Force yourself to intentionally schedule interactions with friends even if you don’t want to.
  • Create structure (as hard as it might be to implement) because it can help with the unpredictability of stress and decrease the uncontrollable

General ideas to decrease stress

  • Remember the concept of emotional contagion. Our emotions are contagious and we are influenced by the emotions of those around us. If the environment is toxic from your family you can catch it and you can also put it out.
  • Practice Self Compassion.  Recent research suggests that self-criticism sets off a cascade of stress response to the equivalence of verbal abuse from another person. Learning to stop constant self-criticism is one way to cut down on the number of times you are activating the stress response. 
  • Catch Rumination.  Rumination has a role in almost all mental health disorders. Catching and shifting your thoughts when ruminating will have a tremendous impact on your well being.
  • Ask yourself what you have control over and start to make small changes. This can help restore your sense of control. 
  • Practice savoring of any positive experience or “taking in the good’ as Rick Hanson calls it. When you have pleasant good experiences, dwell in those experiences a little longer. Just five or ten seconds will help rewire your brain making it more prone to focus on the positive.


Reference for facts on stress

Elissa Epel and Rick Hanson: Strengthening Your Body Against Stress




Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.

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