Your heart begins to race, your palms get sweaty, and your muscles tense up – ready to handle whatever is coming your way. Our body’s reactions to stress dates back to prehistoric man. These responses would kick in and allow the body to react quickly in a “fight-or-flight” situation. Even from a young age, we still experience these reactions when we are stressed. However, as we grow older our responsibility level increases, and usually so do our stress levels. When does it become too much?
What is chronic stress?
When your body is stressed, the brain releases hormones that causes your lungs to push more oxygen through your bloodstream. This can result in an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, tensed muscles, and heavy breathing. Your body focuses all of its energy on “escaping” whatever is causing the stress, putting other functions like cellular growth and tissue repair on hold. This isn’t a problem if the stress is short-lived and your body functions return to normal fairly quickly. When your body doesn’t have a chance to recover from stress, you start to feel the impacts of chronic stress.
Effects on the body & overall health
In today’s society of deadlines, traffic jams, and financial problems stress is an everyday occurrence. However, if your body is under constant chronic stress, it can begin to take a toll on your health. Often the early warning signs of chronic stress are attributed to other factors, but it is important to catch them before they escalate into more severe health risks.
Symptoms like persistent heartburn and digestive problems may be overlooked, but could be a result of increased stomach acid. With prolonged exposure to chronic stress, digestive problems could escalate into stress ulcers.
Increased heart rate and blood flow to muscles could cause frequent tension headaches and sore, tense muscles in the early stages, but could ultimately result in increased blood pressure and higher risk for stroke.
When your body is under chronic stress, your liver consistently produces excess amounts of glucose to keep your energy levels up. In order to maintain these high levels of glucose, your body will begin to crave sugar and foods high in carbohydrates. This often results in weight gain and the health complications that accompany, including diabetes.
Chronic stress often makes it more difficult to fall asleep and get good nights rest. Over time, simply not getting enough sleep could escalate into regular insomnia.
All of these factors eventually breakdown the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illnesses. It also impacts your recovery time. Unfortunately, lack of proper time to recover and the feeling of falling behind usually continues the vicious cycle of chronic stress.
Effects on behavior and attitude
Eventually, the continuous strain on your body can also begin to take a toll on your mental health as well. Even under normal stress, a person could become irritable, short-tempered, overwhelmed, and anxious. Under chronic stress, those emotions are intensified as the timing is prolonged.
Sleep deprivation and chronic stress go hand in hand. Therefore, it would make sense that the symptoms that accompany them are similar. Early stages of sleep deprivation and chronic stress can result in forgetfulness and mood changes. The worse the insomnia becomes the more these symptoms intensify, even reaching as far as memory loss, motor skills impairment, and inability to make decisions.
People who deal with chronic stress often tend to isolate themselves without realizing they are doing so. Regrettably, as the person begins to feel alone, it can lead to depression.
Another symptom that is often overlooked as being linked to stress is lowered or lack of sex drive. For women, chronic stress causes a fluctuation in hormones. For men, chronic stress can result in erectile dysfunction. These factors, coupled with stress fatigue can take a toll on the libido for both men and women.
How can you reduce stress?
The good news is… this condition is treatable. There are many techniques and options available to help manage your stress levels. The first step is to identify what is causing the stress in your life. Some factors like job or financial pressures can be easily identified, but others like sitting in a traffic jam or running late can add to your daily stress as well.
Once you’ve identified the causes for your stress, start by eliminating or finding better ways to react to controllable factors first. If you are consistently late for work, try getting up a little earlier to allow yourself time to relax while getting ready. If you’re struggling with insomnia, try making time to unwind before you go to bed.
Turn to your friends and family for help. Talking to your provider or a therapist may offer comfort and assistance in helping you overcome your stress factors. Either way, it is always important to know that you do not have to do it alone.
Finally, take time for yourself. Slow down. Breathe. Get a massage. Spend time with friends. Go for a walk. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Little things like this can make all the difference in the long run.