Overwhelmed? You might be suffering from chronic stress.
Stress has an unfair reputation. Sure, few of us enjoy feeling stressed. Yet picture a world without stress. Amidst an argument with a partner, you would feel entirely unperturbed. When an important work deadline nears, you would feel…nothing. As you scrambled to pay next month’s rent, your mind and body would be completely unbothered. At first glance, you might think this lack of stress would be nice. But think again; an important role of stress is how it activates our mental and bodily systems to respond effectively to challenges. In other words, normal stress plays helpful functions. It activates your sympathetic nervous system, which coordinates additional bodily resources toward a challenge. Without stress, it would be much harder to effectively handle the difficult situations that arise in everyday life. Knowing about this helpful side of typical stress allows us to distinguish it from chronic stress.
While typical stress is experienced by everyone from time to time, chronic stress reflects ongoing exposure to stressors. Your body’s built-in system for responding to stress activates beyond what is healthy, putting you at risk for longer-term illnesses. Further, your body does not fully activate its typical recovery and relaxation systems following stress. To distinguish between ‘everyday’ and chronic stress, let’s use a silly example.
Paul and the ‘stressful snacks’
Paul, a former chef, dislikes snacks that leave remnants of the snack on a person (think of cheese puffs). He has good reasons for his dislike, and becomes quite stressed whenever he encounters such a snack. Several times a month he encounters coworkers’ lunches that leave him feeling stressed out. When this happens, he typically experiences unpleasant emotions and his thinks negatively about ‘stressful snacks’ for a few hours. However, he is generally able to address the situation and bounce back quickly.
Unfortunately, Paul is now moving due to his partner’s change in jobs. When they move into the new company housing, he is horrified to find that his unit is surrounded by several snack factories. When he looks closely, he notices that the ground has a coating of snack ‘dust’ – he is literally living amidst stressful snack residue! What’s more, his partner is now provided with ‘stressful snacks’ for free and has taken a liking to them, often eating them at home. Now nearly every time he steps foot near his house, he feels stressed. He doesn’t feel like he can relax or get away from thinking about the snacks.
What are symptoms of chronic stress?
You don’t need to feel stressed about cheese puffs (I hope this is rare!) or be experiencing an extreme situation like Paul’s to have chronic stress. The key is the repeated, ongoing nature of stressors. The exact symptoms of chronic stress take forms as varied as the individual. One way of considering the symptoms of chronic stress is to separate them into physical, emotional, and thinking components. Common physical symptoms include aches, tension, fatigue, and stomach difficulties. On the emotional and thinking side, people may feel highly irritable, anxious, sad, and worried. They may have a difficult time distracting their thoughts from stressful topics, and may feel exhausted or hopeless when thinking about the stressors. Overall, the experience of chronic stress often feels overwhelming.
Effective treatments are available for chronic stress
According to research, a number of treatment methods can be helpful for chronic stress. Therapists may help you to learn relaxation techniques, new ways of thinking about stress, or consider how to modify the stressful situations. With counseling, you may learn how to better lean upon the social support you need or engage in practical problem-solving focused on solutions. Across methods, you can learn to feel more in control of stressful situations and better able to cope with stressors.
When should you seek help?
If your level of stress is distressing or is impairing your functioning, it may be time to consult a professional. Listen to your friends and family – they may notice the outsized impact of stress before you do! A therapist can help you to evaluate your stress and provide support for getting back on track.
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