Chronic stress can affect many aspects of our health and well-being. From mental health to diabetes, digestion and effects on the brain, chronic stress can play havoc on our bodies. Chronic stress can lead to burnout. See my previous posts on burnout below:
A fantastic TedEd video on how stress can make you sick
Why we need stress sometimes
Experiencing stress is a normal part of life; we need a stress response within our body to help us to respond to get things and get through challenging aspects of life. Having the ability to react during a stressful situation is ingrained in our DNA, and it is reasonable to have short term stress throughout our lives. Having short-lived stress can get us through public speaking, job interviews, and a terrible date with a suspected serial killer.
When we become stressed, our brain tells our kidneys to release adrenalin and cortisol into our body. This results in an increased heart rate and breathing rate, the blood vessels in our muscles to fill with blood, which takes away blood from our digestion. Stress should only be a short term response to a stressor and not a chronic state of being and when stress becomes your “norm” is when it starts to affect your health and well-being (2).
Effects on the brain
Chronic stress can lead to a reduction in the size of your brain, which brings with it changes to respond to stress, memory and cognition (1). Memory problems are commonly seen in people experiencing chronic stress, and this may be a domino effect creating more tension in your life. Which may cascade to more stress if you forgot to do something important, like if you forgot to bring your husband home from the supermarket. Prolonged chronic stress states can play a role in the development of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.
During a stressful response, the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream to help feed your brain and muscles in response to the stressful event. This is normal and needed during short periods of stress. However, when this occurs more regularly, our bodies become insensitive to this response and may lead to type II diabetes. Having chronic cortisol levels may also redirect fat to your vital organs. Science Daily states “We also found that women with greater abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress.
Stress changes the normal function of our gut. Stress changes absorption within the intestines affects the stomach by altering acid secretion and may cause inflammation in the intestinal tract. An example of this is Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome has strong associations in people who are stressed.
Women with high levels of stress are more likely to develop cancer than those with lower stress levels (1). Severe stress suppressed the immune system and decreased cancer-killing cells within our immune system, leading to the growth of malignant cells within the body (1).
We all know that when under stress, our heart pounds and our heart rate increases as well as blood pressure. There is a strong correlation between chronic stress levels and cardiovascular disease (1). Increased risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke are all common effects of long term chronic stress.
What can you do to reduce stress and improve your health
- Remove and reduce sources of stress
- Changes in lifestyle such as increasing daily exercise, proper nutrition
- Stress reduction plan, this may include taking time out, taking time to yourself or implementing mindfulness and meditation
Effect on sleep
Stress affects sleep as your body thinks your in a stressful situation that it needs to prepare for. This may mean your mind might race, your heart pound and you get a miserable nights sleep.
Loss of sexual desire or ability
Having chronic stress is exhausting to the body and mind, this may lead to a reduced sexual desire and performance ability during intercourse. There is some evidence to show that chronic stress can cause some fertility issues.
What can you do about it?
Being informed about the effects of chronic stress and working out your best way to manage this may lead you to improve health and feel generally happier.
What can I do to reduce my chronic stress?
- Exercise regularly. If you are not used to exercising, even going for a walk can help.
- Stay connected within your social network. Reach out to someone who makes you laugh and feel good. On the flip side, reduce time with people who are toxic and stress you out
- Trying to get enough sleep each night can make a massive difference to your resilience to stress during the day
- Be mindful in what you do. It is so common for our minds to go on autopilot when we do simple mundane tasks such as brushing our teeth or having a shower. Try getting into the moment and appreciating the warm water, or the sound of the water and be present. See my post on mindfulness and how to incorporate it into your daily routine. I have also researched the best free mindfulness apps HERE to help you on your journey
- Learn to recognise your stressors and use tools to deal with them
During times of stress, delicious, wholesome nutrition is essential to support our body. If you feel you might not get all the nutrients you require, I would recommend some supplementation. I personally use Blackmore Stress support and have found it amazing just to get me through those really stressful days.
Where to get help
- Your Doctor
- Psychologist or counsellor
- There are many online resources and mindfulness programs available. This way up have a great online course targeted for people experiencing stress. I would highly recommend This Way Up
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- Yaribeygi, Habib & Panahi, Yunes & Sahraei, Hedayat & Johnston, Thomas & Sahebkar, Amirhossein. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal. 16. 1057-1072. 10.17179/excli2017-480.
- Reachout (2020). What stress does to the body. Retrieved from https://au.reachout.com/articles/what-stress-does-to-the-body
- .Science Daily (2000). Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted At Yale Shows. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001120072314.htm#:~:text=Cortisol%20affects%20fat%20distribution%20by,surrounding%20the%20organs%E2%80%94in%20animals
- Better Health Channel (2020). Stress. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/stress