How chronic stress leads to diseases: How to reduce chronic stress

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Kevin Mangelschots

Chronic stress is becoming a widespread problem. It is especially prevalent in our modern society. That’s precisely why we need to figure out how chronic stress leads to diseases, and how to reduce chronic stress.

According to the Global Organization for Stress, 75% of Americans experienced moderate to high-stress levels in the past month. 80% of people feel stressed at work, and students say that stress is their number one health concern.[1]http://www.gostress.com/stress-facts/

If we check The American Institute of Stress, 33% of people report feeling extreme stress, with 77% of people experiencing stress that negatively affects their physical health. 73% of people report feeling stress that negatively impacts their mental health, with 48% of folks having trouble sleeping because of long term stress.[2]https://www.stress.org/daily-life

Image of a stressed woman yelling in a phone, with multiple post-it notes sticking on her clothes and table.

One can define chronic stress as a consistent feeling of being pressured and overwhelmed over a long-lasting stretch of time.

It’s the response of our body to perceived emotional stressors, which we regard as having little to absolutely no control over.

Prolonged stress happens when our body experiences stressors at such a high intensity and/or frequency that the autonomic nervous system, more specifically the parasympathetic nervous system, can not adequately reply with a relaxation response.

The body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system, which is the system responsible for activation and the well-known fight or flight response, remains overactive when we are faced with prolonged stress.

The parasympathetic’s main function in our body is relaxation.

How to reduce chronic stress

Illustration describing how to cope in order to reduce stress and increase health.

Fortunately, there are some things we can do to reduce stress and anxiety.

There are two big mainstream ways to deal with chronic stress. Namely:

  1. Problem based coping
  2. Emotional based coping

Problem based coping

One is treatment in an attempt to get rid of the issue entirely by addressing the concern. This is what we call problem based coping.

Emotional based coping

Another way is emotional based coping.

Emotion focused coping attempts to learn healthy coping mechanisms to reduce the negative impact of long-term stressors. It makes an effort to reduce, or change the negative emotions that we typically associate with stress.

Treatment

Treatment options include psychotherapy in order to change the negative thoughts, and medications in order to lessen these concerns. A combination of both is preferable if, and only if, the issues are severe enough.

  • Psychotherapy

    Psychotherapy should always be the first line treatment option in my opinion.

    The only exception would be if the person suffering is experiencing stress to such a high degree that they have suicidal thoughts or is at risk for self harm. In that case, medication is always desirable and even necessary as well to guarantee the patient’s safety.

    Psychotherapy includes practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in order to identify negative thoughts and perhaps thoughts that are untrue that contribute to the prolonged stress one is experiencing.

    Psychotherapy means you will be working with a professional therapist. They will work together with you in an attempt to change and restructure those untrue and negative thoughts into realistic, more positively formulated thoughts in order to reduce the stress one is experiencing.

    Psychotherapy also includes emotional based coping techniques such as learning healthy coping mechanisms in order to deal with stress in a better, healthier way.

    Another approach to psychotherapy is mindfulness based stress reduction. It helps people to utilize mindfulness and meditation, in order to cope more efficiently with their personal chronic stressors.

  • Medication

    Image of a bottle that fell over with multicolored pills falling out.

    A doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe different kinds of medication to help manage or alleviate the symptoms associated with long-term stress.

    Again, medication should, in my opinion, not be used as a first line treatment unless people are suicidal or at risk for self harm.

    Sometimes, the symptoms of chronic stress, which may include depression and anxiety, are so severe that a person is unable to function without medication. If that is the case, medication might be an important, and even a necessary step towards a full recovery or at least a better way of coping with stress.

Coping

Another mainstream way of thinking is learning how to cope with chronic stress. Emotional based coping does not take away the cause of the problem, but teaches people suffering from chronic stress to deal and manage their stress levels better. Different kind of stress management techniques exist to help combat long-term stress.

Healthy coping mechanisms such as exercising, connecting with other people, taking the time to relax, avoiding alcohol and other drugs and eating a healthy diet have a large variety of health benefits. These benefits include:

  • Provides immediate stress relief

    Image of the words, “deep breathing”, written in the sand of a beach.

    Certain fast acting stress relief techniques such as deep breathing exercises and exercising can lessen the stress response in our body due to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.

    When a person gets a chance to relax due to relaxing the sympathetic nervous system, they feel better and tend to make better personal life choices that help to avoid creating more stress for oneself.

    A stressed person often makes things worse by creating even more stress simply due to being stressed out. Remember that we only see what we focus on. And what we decide to focus on, we become. This means it’s important to relax and take our mind off the more negative things in our lives from time to time.

  • Helps you to develop stress resilience

    Healthy habits will be indispensable in the long term to build up stress resilience.

    It accomplishes this due to making sure that you have long-term healthy habits in place, which will help you to deal with future stressors more efficient and more effectively.

    Perhaps a human’s greatest strength is their adaptability. Not their intellect or raw strength, as has sometimes been proposed in history.

    And so, we can learn from our previous mistakes and challenges. This is no different with chronic stressors. We will learn what coping mechanisms work well for us and when we are at risk for developing chronic stress disorder.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Chronic stress causes

Image of a man writing various questions to figure out the root cause.

Chronic stress responses happen frequently in our modern high-pressure lifestyle.

Overly busy, high pressure lives

One of the chronic stress causes is an overly busy, high pressure life.

This means that high-pressured jobs, busy traffic, loneliness, the notion to constantly perform and to be the best all adds up to a busy, rat race of a life.

This is at the very least the case in our western based societies, perhaps the eastern societies live a healthier life that’s more focused on limiting chronic stress? Something that’s worth to think about.

Over stimulation and activation of the sympathetic nervous system

All the above can keep the sympathetic nervous system engaged and thus, our body can become stuck in a constant fight or flight response to those stressors. Thus, our sympathetic nervous system remains overactive., frequently due to over stimulation.

Misattribution/misuse of the “fight or flight” response

A little more about the fight or flight response, then.

The fight or flight response was, and ultimately still is, designed to fight off and help us defend against life-threatening situations. Think of running away from hostile enemy tribes, and fighting, hunting, or running from dangerous animals in the past.

Due to the improvements made to our civilization and the great advancements in technology, our lives have seemingly changed rapidly. But our bodies have not. Our bodies, or our genes if you will, are still mostly unchanged from more ancient times.

Thus, things like busy traffic, and high-pressured jobs can wrongly trigger our fight or flight response. This overactive sympathetic nervous system can wear our bodies down because it drains a lot of energy since it releases adrenaline. This can cause us to become physically, and even emotionally, ill.

The good news is that we can do something about that. We can learn stress management techniques like deep breathing exercises, yoga, or mindfulness. Many more stress management techniques exist, but these are some popular, well-known examples. These relaxation techniques can help stave off those harmful chronic stressors and, thus, fend off health issues.

What are the differences between acute stress and chronic stress?

Image of a prohibition sign with the word “stress” written on it.

Acute stress

Important to note is that acute stress and chronic stress are not the same, even though both are stressors. There are some critical differences between chronic stressors and acute stressors. 

Short stressors are far less harmful than chronic stressors. Furthermore, the acute stress effect can also be beneficial, and even desirable for one’s health and success.

An example of an advantageous acute stressor is exercising. Running, lifting weights, gardening, and even doing yoga are all examples of beneficial short-term stressors.

The biggest differences are that these acute stress effects have a brief duration and that our body can adapt to them. Thus, making our body stronger, and more resilient as a result.

An example of a negative short-term stressor is being anxious because you have to give a presentation at school.

Perhaps you only get nervous at the very moment you’ll have to present in front of the class. This means that while the acute stressor does give you acute stress, it is only short-lived and, thus, not as harmful as chronic stressors.

To summarize, acute stressors are:

  • Brief/passing
  • Adaptable because our bodies can adequately respond

Chronic stress

Image credits go to pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/distressed-man-on-bed-7927020/

This means that prolonged stressors are chronic, and that because the stressors are so long-lasting, our bodies can’t suitably respond and adapt to these stressors.

Think about a loved one dying. Obviously, the passing of someone dear to us is emotionally painful, and can even bring the toughest of us to their knees.

Most likely, we will feel this pain extremely intense, and for a very long time. This grief is a prolonged stressor that can, and will cause sadness, despair, anger, uncertainty, and many other toxic emotions.

These negative chronic stressors will give us chronic stress, which can cause anxiety, and even phobias in some cases because our bodies can’t aptly adapt.

Prolonged stress can lead to a long term stress response such as chronic tension headaches, or a chronic stress response such as aches and pain.

This means that chronic stressors are:

  • chronic/enduring
  • Non-adaptable because our bodies can’t properly respond.

Different types of chronic stressors

There are different types of chronic stressors because the sources, the origins of those stressors can vary.

  • Emotional stress

    A man and woman arguing while pointing their finger at each other.

    Emotional stress is long-term stress coming from negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, and envy.

    Worthwhile to note is that those stressors tell something about us, and what we might feel is missing in our lives. Thus, we can use those negative stressors and turn them into a positive thing by changing our lives for the better.

  • Environmental stress

    Environmental stress is perceived stress due to your direct surroundings, such as where you live and work.

    One shouldn’t underestimate the effects of environmental stress at work, since we spend give or take 8 hours each day there when working a full-time job.

    That means that we often end up spending more time awake during the week at work than at home. Something to consider and worth thinking about.

    If you are unhappy at work, then consider making a plan to change jobs.

  • Work stress

    Image of multiple employees having a conflict at work.

    Another long term stressor is work stress. It’s related to all the pressure associated with your job.

    It is possible to feel over asked at work. Or perhaps your boss is not willing to listen to his/her coworkers, and you’re feeling misunderstood or not important as a result.

    It is also possible that you’re not getting along well with your colleagues, and feel pressured as a consequence.

    This can all lead to work related stress that can be toxic in the long run.

  • Relationship stress

    Stress related to the relationship you have with your friends, family, your romantic partner, and coworkers.

    When a relationship with someone we value is strained due to whatever the reason may be, it stresses our emotional health.

    Why? Because we value that person, their opinion, and we obviously want to respect each other and live together in harmony.

Chronic stress symptoms

Illustrations of the various symptoms of stress.

Dealing with chronic stress is hard. But the negative effects of chronic stress cannot be overstated.

It can have multiple symptoms and detrimental results in the long run. Since chronic stress is long-lasting, it can have a very severe, and negative impact on both your mental and your physical health. Especially if left untreated.

Possible signs of chronic stress include:

  • Depression
  • Weight changes
  • Diabetes
  • Acne
  • Ulcers
  • Eczema
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Low libido

Of course, one, or multiple of these symptoms on their own don’t immediately mean that one is suffering from chronic stress, since multiple other diseases also have these symptoms in common.

Rather, it can be used as a tool to identify if one is potentially suffering from a chronic stress disorder. It can also be a warning signal for people to go to a doctor in order to determine if one is currently suffering from long term stress or other potential problems when the symptoms are severe enough.

More signs of prolonged stress exist, and identifying them as soon as possible is paramount in order to treat the issues.

The detrimental long term effects of stress

Sad thumbs down emoji.

Chronic diseases

In general, stress and chronic disease are inseparable. Furthermore, chronic stress and anxiety are intertwined as well.

In short, we can conclude that chronic stress leads to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Mental and physical sickness

The effects of chronic stress are dangerous because our bodies can’t carry out an adaptive relaxation response to these long-term stressors and thus, we become sick. It is possible to become mentally ill and/or physically ill.

The long-term effects of Chronic stress are dangerous because it often leads to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular dysfunctions and a whole variety of autoimmune diseases over time. This means that stress can cause heart problems and, yes, even heart attacks.

It is unsafe and hard to detect because it takes a very long time to notice the concerns that the chronic stress is causing. Even more so, very few people actually realize how much stress they are experiencing since “they’ve gotten used to it”, and “it has been this way for a long time”.

Normalizing the issue

One of the detrimental long term effects of stress comes from normalizing the issue.

This isn’t always a good thing to do. And it can lead to not knowing that we got a concern with tenseness. And if we don’t realize that we’ve got an issue with stress, then we can’t treat or fix that difficulty either.

Chronic stress synonyms

Chronic stress is also often called prolonged stress, and long term stress.

Since they’re synonyms, their meaning remains exactly the same, and are regularly used intertwined.

Conclusion

Image of a hand holding a card with the word “conclusions” written in blue.

Chronic stress leads to sickness.

We need to understand the causes and the symptoms of prolonged stress. Luckily, managing this concern is achievable for most people.

We know now that it can lead to health problems such as diabetes, heart problems, depression, hyperthyroidism, and a multitude of other wellness troubles.

Therefore, it is in our own best interest to acknowledge symptoms of long term tension to prevent ourselves from becoming sick. Be it physically or mentally unwell.

Effects of long-term stress can be devastating. But, when diagnosed early on, it can be treated and multiple coping mechanisms can aid to lessen the impact of long-term stress.

Acute stress effects on the other hands can be beneficial, and make us more resilient due to accommodating. Think of the body adapting to the weights, which in this case is the acute stressor when we are practicing weightlifting.

Call to action

“Take action” written with white chalk on a blackboard.

Reduce chronic stress by letting go of the things you can’t change, and by taking action to solve the root of the issue of the things that you can do something about.

Problem based coping is ideal since it solves the concern entirely. And that’s exactly why it should be your first plan of action towards learning how to get rid of chronic stress.

References

References
1http://www.gostress.com/stress-facts/
2https://www.stress.org/daily-life

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