One restless night after the next. Frequent headaches. An upset stomach that won’t go away. They may seem unrelated, and many people can’t find the cause of these afflictions. But there may be one underlying cause: stress.
Things like getting stuck in traffic, missing a flight or burning dinner are surely stressful. They may raise your heart rate, cause you to breathe faster and make your palms sweaty, all normal signs of stress.
Those responses from your body have been honed for decades. It’s known as the fight-or-flight response. Those reactions are part of a coping method held over from days long past. Our brains release hormones and trigger changes in our body that help us fight off a threat or run away from it.
But other events may cause what’s called chronic stress. Experiencing the loss of a loved one, moving across the country or planning a wedding can cause a different, more drawn-out response in our bodies.
“Being chronically stressed out and not dealing with it in a healthy way is not an ideal situation for the mind or the body,” says Dr. Ben Kurian, a psychiatrist and Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan behavioral health medical director.
Do You Have Chronic Stress?
Symptoms of chronic stress are varied, making it harder to pin down the true source of the ailment. Some of the physical symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Upset stomach
- Sleep problems
- Muscle tension or pain
Even worse, stress hormones can worsen other chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses, Kurian says.
Stress can also affect your mood, causing anxiety or making you feel overwhelmed, grouchy or sad.
How to Cope
One of the first steps to coping with chronic stress is recognizing that its effects are all linked and what’s causing it. Often, big life events that cause long-term stress, like the death of a loved one, can’t be avoided.
But even if we can’t avoid it, we can still manage it better. “How we deal with stress is more important than just avoiding it all together,” Kurian says.
One of the best ways to limit the effects of chronic stress is to focus on the big three:
- Get enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get seven or more hours of sleep each night.
- Eat a balanced diet. Fruit, vegetables and high-fiber foods can help fight the harmful effects of stress.
- Get regular exercise. Exercising isn’t just for heart health, it has mood-boosting properties as well. The CDC recommends that adults get 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
“If you do those three things, regardless of what the stress is, it’s less likely to have a negative impact,” he says.
There are plenty of other ways to ease the symptoms of chronic stress. One survey on stress reported that these are the most popular stress relievers beyond sleeping, eating right and exercising:
- Regularly spending time with family and friends
- Meditating or praying often
- Spending time outside
- Spending time with a pet
- Spending time on a hobby
Still, sometimes getting routine sleep, eating right, exercising or other efforts aren’t enough. If despite these healthy coping skills, the stress is still causing harmful mental and physical symptoms, it’s a good idea to go in and talk to your doctor, Kurian says.
Primary care doctors are on the front lines of treating depression and anxiety. They can suggest treatment choices or help get you connected to a psychiatrist or therapist if needed.
“There are trained professionals whose sole job it is to help you get through it,” Kurian says. “You don’t have to suffer alone.”
Take action to reduce the effects of stress.
Take stock of what’s happening in your life that may cause chronic stress, and take these suggested steps to deal with it head-on.
Sources: Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior, Mayo Clinic; How Much Sleep Do I Need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2017; Physical Activity Guidelines, CDC, 2018; How to Eat Right to Reduce Stress, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; The Burden of Stress in America, NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health, 2014; Understanding the stress response, Harvard Health Publishing, 2018; Online Social Networking and Mental Health, Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, October 2014; Addicted to Social Media? Psychology Today, May 2018; Top Tips for a Digital Detox, Psychology Today, July 2015