Stress is unavoidable in life, whether it’s from a round of layoffs at work, a breakup with your significant other, or even something as simple as driving through bad traffic.
But chronic or long-term stress is taking it to a whole other level, and you really don’t want to go there, for your health’s sake.
Experts explain what chronic stress actually is, and share the top health conditions that can actually be triggered by long-term high levels of stress.
Jeanette Raymond, a psychologist and psychotherapist, defines long-term stress as “a prolonged period of stress that permanently alters the hormonal and chemical balance in the immune system.”
“It is caused by lack of control over life situations -- usually bad relationships starting in childhood and continuing -- a trap that's difficult to get out of,” Raymond said in an email. “The period of time is usually years, not weeks or months.”
Anastasia Pollock, a psychotherapist, said in an email that chronic high stress is defined as “stress that is outside the person’s window of tolerance of coping for a period longer than a few days.”
Raymond believes chronic stress can lead to health conditions because stress can increase cortisol levels and compromise the immune system. Many people cope with stress in unhealthy ways like smoking, abusing alcohol or eating unhealthy foods as well.
She said that 16 of some of the major physical health conditions that are associated with long-term stress include:
1) Irritable Bowel Syndrome
2) Inflammatory Bowel Disease
3) Hair Loss
5) Low Libido
6) Weight Gain and Obesity
7) Lower Back Pain
9) Skin Breakouts
11) Rheumatoid Arthritis
12) Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
15) Heart Disease
Pollock added that there are six more health problems related to long-term stress:
1) Gastrointestinal problems
2) Autoimmune disorders
3) Reproductive issues (e.g., irregular periods and fertility struggles)
4) Inflammation of organs and joints
5) Body pains and aches
There are ways to get yourself out of the dangerous cycle of chronic stress and health problems.
Pollock shares one overall tip to reduce stress: using mindfulness skills with physical sensations.
“This involves a person becoming more aware of his or her own body and how the body feels in the moment,” Pollock said. “The person can focus on one part of the body at a time and just check in with any sensations he or she is experiencing, without trying to change what is noticed.”
“If thoughts or something else distracts the person’s attention, they should notice and gently redirect their attention to the body part they are focused on without criticism of his or herself,” she added.
Here are three benefits of this practice, according to Pollock:
1) “Regular mindfulness practice increases the person’s awareness of his or her body, which is trying to send information to the person about how stress is impacting health.”
2) “It gives the person a better idea of where they are physically, and teaches him or her to be a better listener of the body, so he or she can start following through better and more often with physical needs.”
3) “It can also help the person to learn to control thinking, including stressful and anxiety provoking thoughts about the past or future, which can also contribute to chronic stress.”
Raymond also has eight options for reducing stress levels:
1) “Focus on what you can control in the immediate moment and next.”
2) “Make notes on your phone/notebook of what you have done -- tiny
things like got to work on time. This gives the stressed brain a sense that
you are in charge, are operating in a functional manner and are achieving
3) “Stay grounded in the here and now by focusing on what you have around you -- sunshine, pets, achievements, loving friends, etc.”
4) “Focus on the things that went well in the last day or so to calm the
fear that you are a failure and need to up the game.”
5) “Use the excess adrenaline that stress provides to do some of the jobs
you have been putting off at home, at work, or with your kids or in your
hobby area. You will feel successful and productive -- once again reducing
the fear and anxiety about the future.”
6) “Take breaks between tasks and jobs and tune into how you feel about what
you just did.”
7) “Relationship stress is often triggered by insecurity. Write your feelings of concern about a relationship and that in itself will be relieving, since you are not ignoring or bottling it up. Then use your writing to discuss the issues with the person in your relationship. Stress is reduced when you take action and make decisions to stick up for yourself.”
8) “Making collages and/or expressing the stress in some artistic form, like cooking, is very calming.”
Raymond, Jeanette. Email interview. July 15, 2014.
Pollock, Anastasia. Email interview. July 15, 2014.
Reviewed July 18, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith