What is chronic stress

Chronic stress is caused by a significant traumatic event over a period of time, or by constant minor stressors such as work stress, family stress, or daily stress or a combination of these events. 

Examples of chronic stress include what many of us have currently experienced in 2021: job loss, transition changes, worry, and isolation due to COVID. Other general examples of chronic stress include stress from child-rearing, moves, work stress, arguing with spouses, financial trouble, and home repairs. Chronic stress is a significant risk factor for anxiety states and depressive disorders and countless medical conditions. 

How does chronic stress happen? 

In the past, a threat to our survival usually meant a predator, but in the present, survival can mean anything that causes us stress.

    • Too many emails
    • Our children
    • Too much responsibility?
    • A high-stress career

what is acute stress and what is chronic stress?

Acute stress versus chronic stress

Acute stress is a short-term stress reaction such as an argument with your child, a complicated interaction at a meeting, a speeding ticket, or having to take a test. These stressful situations are those we typically are biologically wired to handle and recover from. 

Acute stress is differentiated from acute stress disorder, which happens after a traumatic event, and may eventually evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What is chronic stress: The two branches of our nervous system

We have two components to the nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. 

Our sympathetic nervous system is composed of the fight-flight and freeze response. Designed to help us survive in the case of acute threat and then restore itself quickly, it was very handy to our survival. It can still be beneficial in real-life or death situations. 

Our parasympathetic branch is composed of the rest, digest, and recover response and everything unrelated to survival. States such as joy, happiness, connection, compassion, immunity, digestion, reproduction, empathy, and creativity also exist. 

Unfortunately, what happens when we are under chronic stress is our sympathetic nervous system is overactivated. 

This overactivation leads to your body and brain being dysregulated because of this stress response. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis is the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. The HPA axis is drastically impacted by stress and likely responsible for so many illnesses being stress-related.  When this occurs your body is often flooded regularly with stress hormones, and the most essential functions of your body are disrupted such as sleep, digestion, breathing, and heart beat. This relationships between your nervous system and stress explains the relationship between your health, your mental health and stress. 

Chronic stress may go unnoticed for years.  In our society we are taught to soldier through difficult times and are not aware of the symptoms of stress our bodies give us.

Some of us may be more prone to be sensitive to stress due to our physiology, certain traits we have or our early childhood environment and attachment to our caregiver. 

Crucial to understanding the mind and body connection is that when we are in a chronic stress state our body is working on using it's parts that function only for survival and starving its parts used for other things. This puts it into and unbalanced state. It will often begin to take a toll on our bodies. This is why chronic stress is related to poor mental health AND physical illness. Modern society encourages us to put ourselves into a state of chronic stress. Disconnected from nature, connected to technology, overworked, and detached from our loved ones and ourselves, we create a prime environment for this chronic stress reaction to thrive.  

Modern medical and mental health professionals have often treated illness in isolation and fail to consider the impact of the mind-body connection. 

Yet it  makes little sense to treat a physical illness or a mental illness without understanding the stress connection.

GOOD MENTAL HEALTH TIP on chronic stress

What are clues that we are in chronic stress?

  • If we go into a freeze response from chronic, overwhelm, and stress, we can feel drained, lacking energy, and have constant irritability. Everything can feel like too much. 
  • Our fight response can look like anger, arguing, and other activated behaviors.
  • We also may feel stuck and have trouble making choices and just feel like we are surviving. We also can move back and forth between these states.

When we are trying to regulate our nervous system on our own, we often engage in not-so-healthy activities such as overworking, overeating, gambling, addiction, and surfing the internet. 

The good news is that we can help ourselves with our chronic stress reaction by incorporating activities that create a sense of safety. Here are some that work:

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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.