Chronic Stress

Why It Is Harmful and How to Protect Your Wellbeing

By: Martha Catlette

Are You Stressed?

The word “stressed” has become a part of our everyday vocabulary to mean that we are feeling uneasy, wired, and overwhelmed. Stress in our society is of epidemic proportion. “Our epidemic is silent and hidden, in the form of low-level chronic stress.”

Many of us live with a constant feeling of being “stressed” and uneasy day in and day out. It is this constant, low-level stress that can be so damaging to our mental and physical health and is a major factor in the development of chronic illness. 

As teens and young adults, we often become conditioned to this state of stress but do not recognize it until we develop physical health issues, however the harm to our bodies and minds started long before the symptoms became noticeable.

Just for a moment, ask yourself, “Do your mind and body communicate or does your mind ignore your body?” How many times has your body sent you messages of something not being quite right, but your mind ignored it and keep doing the same things? Do you take time out in your day to check in with yourself and how you are feeling? Or do you must push through on autopilot?

  It is this lack of awareness that get us in to trouble, so awareness is the first step in shifting this pattern of behavior. Whatever your age it is not too late to learn to manage your stress!

What Is Stress?

Stressors are a normal part of our lives, and everyone feels stressed from time to time, but what is stress? Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event.

Not all stress is bad. Our bodies are designed to manage stress through activation of sympathetic autonomic nervous system that prepares us to manage the stressor by facing it head on, escaping the situation, or hiding from the danger (this is known as “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”).

Why Does Stress Cause Harm?

When we experience acute stress our perspiration increases, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, we become more focused, and we have a burst of adrenalin to energize us to manage the stressor. Once the stressful event subsides our body returns naturally to a state of balance through activation of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system which allows our body and mind to rest and restore. When the stressors are continual, however, and our nervous system stays in a chronic heightened state of alertness, our bodies and minds are unable to adapt and we experience wear and tear that can contribute to serious health problems, “such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression  or anxiety”

The 3 Stages of Damage Caused by Stress

Over time, when stress has become chronic, three stages of damage begin to appear. Damage will often appear first as psychological/neuronal such as feeling mentally tired or exhausted from being under specific life pressures. When people say they have run out of energy for coping, there may be underlying mental states such as depression, anxiety, and even feelings of panic.

Next there can be behavioral changes, particularly in the areas of work and relationships. When work pressures and stress are mounting, this can lead to office gossiping and having drinks after work to unwind. Eventually we begin to take these feelings home with us, and relationship friction affects the home front.

Over time this chronic stress leads to physical damage. Common physical symptoms include physical fatigue, poor digestion, and headaches. We start getting colds and allergic reactions due to a reduced immune response. Finally, when inflammation sets in it can manifest throughout the body, for example in skin irruptions, irritable bowel syndrome, heart attack, and stroke indicating serious system breakdown.

Taking Responsibility for Your Own Wellbeing

Learning to manage your stress starts with awareness. Recognize the stress signals from your body and mind, such as changes in sleep, increased use of alcohol and other substances, or being highly irritable or easily angered. Realize that only you can take steps to manage your stress. No one else can do this for you. Learn to admit when things have gotten to be too pressured and act accordingly. Do not be afraid to ask others for help, whether it is at work or home. Identify the stressors in your life and limit exposure to them or cut them out altogether. It is also advisable to seek professional help from a qualified mental health professional for sorting through the stressors and receiving guidance.

10 Actions to Take to Protect Your Own Wellbeing

Even though we all have stress in our lives, we are each different in our sensitivity and reaction to it. Personalize your response to stress based on what is best for you. There is no one size fits all.

  1. Identify your triggers-What situations make you feel agitated or upset? Avoid them as much as possible or seek ways to cope when avoidance is not possible.
  2. Provide structure-Have a schedule for managing your time each day and set priorities. This helps prevent the feeling of overwhelm and disorganization.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques-Breath work, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and meditation are all research-based techniques that support the management of stress. Explore and find what works best for you.
  4. Exercise/move your body every day-Make movement enjoyable. Research supports exercise as a primary stress reducer but making it something you enjoy is the key! 
  5. Schedule time for yourself-Do something every day that makes you feel good-walk your dog, read a book, or visit a friend. What you choose to do does not have to be expensive or hard to access. Get in touch with what simple things bring you joy.
  6. Eat well-Avoid processed foods and dieting. Eat whole, nourishing foods and drink plenty of water. Eat foods that nourish you and make you feel healthy and energized. This helps strengthen your body and stabilize your mood.
  7. Get enough sleep-Sleep disturbance can throw everything off balance and many mental health conditions are triggered by poor sleep.
  8. Avoid alcohol and drugs-Substance use only make stress worse. Seek professional help if needed. 
  9. Talk to someoneWhether you talk to a close friend, understanding family member, qualified mental health professional or a support group, airing out and talking can help.
  10. Seek professional help-do not be afraid to admit you need help. We all do and the sooner you seek support and relief the sooner you will feel better and protect your wellbeing.

Know that it is up to you to take responsibility for your health and wellbeing. If you don’t do it no one else can do it for you! You don’t have to accept feeling constantly stressed. Take action today against the harmful effects of stress so that you protect your physical and mental wellbeing and can enjoy your life! 

Martha Catlette, PhD, PMHNP-BC

Holistic Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

2692 West Oxford Loop

Oxford, MS  38655