Stress and Physical Health: What Happens When Stress Becomes Chronic?

To mark the end of stress awareness month, I’m inviting you to take a look at the physical health impact of prolonged stress.

Chronic stress is a long-term feeling of stress that can negatively affect our health if it goes untreated. It can be caused by the everyday pressures of family and work or by traumatic situations.

Chronic stress occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis (parasympathetic nervous system). This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal – the fight-or-flight response.

This affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly. People were built to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is consistent over a long period of time. In order to begin managing chronic stress, it is important to understand what it is, what may be causing it, and how it affects the entire body.

Chronic Stress and the Brain

Stress is a condition of the mind-body interaction, and a factor in the expression of disease that differs among individuals. It is not just the dramatic stressful events that exert their toll, but also the many events of daily life that elevate and sustain activities of our physiological systems and cause sleep deprivation, appetite disturbance, substance misuse, and various health-damaging behaviours, ultimately resulting in the feeling of being “stressed out.” Over time, this results in wear-and-tear on the body which is called “allostatic load”.

Hormones associated with stress and allostatic load protect the body in the short-term and promote adaptation, but in the long run allostatic load causes changes in the body that can lead to poor health. 

The brain is the key organ of stress, allostasis, and allostatic load, because it determines what is threatening and therefore stressful. It also determines physiological and behavioural responses. Brain regions such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex respond to acute and chronic stress by undergoing structural remodelling, which alters our behavioural and physiological responses in the face of stressful circumstances.

Research has also shown that chronic exposure to stress hormones at different times across the lifespan has an impact on brain structures involved in cognition and mental health. This suggests that it is not just the stressors themselves that can impact our health over time, but when we experience them is critical too.  

Identifying Chronic Stress

It isn’t always easy to recognise chronic stress. It is pervasive and long-lasting, so people often grow accustomed to it and feel that it’s their ‘normal’. Some signs that you may wish to look for when identifying chronic stress:

Types of Chronic Stress

Sources of chronic stress can vary, but often fall into one of four different types:

In most instances, these types of stresses affect multiple domains our lives. Work stress can create stress in relationships. Relationship stress can make it more difficult to manage difficult emotions due to a shift in our support system.

For example, if your family is struggling financially or with a severe illness, the stress can become chronic. Someone in your home may not be able to work, and bills may pile up as a result. This can leave you stressed for months or even a year or more. Constant worry and anxiety wears down your body. You may be working harder than ever to make ends meet and make unhealthy choices about food and exercise, which can make you feel even worse. This can lead to significant health concerns over time.

We can also have chronic stress related to work. Many jobs require a lot from us, and it can often feel like you never get a break or are always under pressure to perform. Working overtime, constant travel, and high-pressure business environments are commonplace in modern society. Many business cultures require you to be contactable 24/7, resulting in an inability to ‘switch off’ from the demands of work life, even when you get home to your family or try to relax. This keeps your body in a constant state of stress.

Photo credit: DjelicS on istock.

The Health Impact

Because chronic stress is prolonged, it can have a detrimental impact on your health and well-being if left untreated. Some potential complications related to chronic stress include

Finding ways to manage chronic stress is important for physical and mental health. This may involve professional treatment, but self-help and relaxation strategies can often be effective.

Treatment Options

If severe chronic stress is causing significant distress or impairing your ability to function normally in your day-to-day life, professional treatment can help you develop new coping skills and find ways to lower your stress levels. Options include psychotherapy approaches such as CBT and mindfulness, or medication such as antidepressants.