The Psychological Impact of Chronic Stress: Understanding and Managing its Impacts

April 18, 2024   •  Posted in: 

There is a severe health epidemic happening in America: the widespread epidemic of chronic stress. In the American Psychological Association’s 2023 report, around 25% of Americans rated their stress levels as eight or above on a scale of one to ten[1].

We tend to try to dismiss or ignore stress; the same report found two-thirds of adults felt their problems weren’t “bad enough” to feel stressed about. Unfortunately, ignoring doesn’t work in this situation – and we’re also seeing rates of stress-related health conditions, like high blood pressure, steadily rise.

On top of its physical effects, chronic stress has a significant impact on your mental health. Although there are many ways to manage stress effectively, when it’s left unaddressed, stress can quickly develop into more serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

In this article, we’ll dive into the details of the psychological impacts of chronic stress and how you can take control of your mental health.

Chronic stress vs acute stress

First, it’s important to define what chronic stress is.

Stress is your body’s physiological response to an overwhelming or dangerous situation. It can be acute, which happens in short bursts, or chronic, which lasts longer.

Acute stress

Acute stress is the severe spike of stress that directly responds to a perceived threat. It’s often called the “fight-or-flight” reflex. During these bursts of acute stress, your nervous system activates a series of changes designed to help you deal effectively with the challenge.

For example:

  • Your heart beats faster to get more blood into your muscles
  • Your senses get sharper
  • You start breathing quicker to get more oxygen into your system
  • Bodily functions that are irrelevant to fighting (or fleeing from) the threat – including your immune system and digestion – are slowed or shut down
  • Your adrenal glands pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that give you energy and help you deal with the threat

Acute stress is uncomfortable, but it’s temporary and usually doesn’t affect your health long-term. For example, you might have a burst of acute stress when you swerve to avoid hitting another car. You may feel the physical changes listed above, but with time, your body starts to regulate and return to baseline – for example, you start breathing more normally, and so on.

Chronic stress

On the other hand, chronic stress doesn’t go away even when the direct threat has passed – or you might be perceiving many things to be threatening (even, in some cases, when they’re not).

For example, you might continue to feel stress due to having to keep up with deadlines at work. Deadlines don’t threaten your physical safety, but your body may perceive it as overwhelming. The stress you feel about meeting deadlines may wax and wane in severity, but it never disappears. You never return to baseline; your stress response is activated all the time.

The problem is, while acute stress in short, temporary bursts can be helpful – it gives us more energy and focus to meet challenges – our bodies aren’t meant to sustain the stress response over long periods. The long-term activation of these bodily changes (such as the release of cortisol) in chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind.

How does chronic stress affect your mental health?

Being under chronic stress can understandably start to wear on your mental health over time. Studies have found stress can cause physical changes in brain structure, including in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system[2]. The constant presence of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can cause certain brain areas – including the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala – not to work properly[3].

Some of the psychological and behavioral symptoms you might experience as a result of chronic stress include:

  • Mood changes, including mood swings and depressed mood
  • Severe worrying and racing thoughts
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Sleep problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Drinking or using drugs more than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating

Because of the way chronic stress affects the brain, it’s been found that people who live under chronic stress are at much higher risk of developing certain mental health conditions.

Chronic stress and depression

Depression (including major depressive disorder and other types of depression) is a category of mental health conditions that leads people to experience symptoms like low or numb mood, lack of interest in life and activities, sleep changes, appetite changes, and suicidal thoughts. It affects nearly 10% of American adults[4].

Depression and chronic stress have been highly linked in literature[5]. In one online poll, over 50% of people who were stressed reported feeling depressed[6]. This link is at least partly physiological – the way that stress affects the brain can leave you more vulnerable to developing depression and vice versa.

Unfortunately, stress and depression have a bidirectional relationship, which means each worsens the other. The effects of chronic stress on the brain, including hyperactivity in some regions of the brain and an imbalance of certain hormones and neurotransmitters, can raise your risk of developing depression. But life with depression is challenging – depression interrupts your sleep, relationships, and more – which can leave you with higher overall stress.

Chronic stress and anxiety

Anxiety is a type of mental health disorder that causes people to experience persistent and excessive worries along with physical symptoms like a racing heart or difficulty sleeping. It is the world’s most common mental health disorder[7].

Anxiety and chronic stress are very similar; both can cause symptoms like:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Excessive worrying
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Irritability

The difference between the two is that while stress is a natural reaction of your body to something overwhelming or threatening, anxiety is a more long-lasting and serious health condition that requires treatment. However, the line between severe chronic stress and anxiety is very thin, and chronic stress can quickly turn into an anxiety disorder when it’s left unaddressed.

Chronic stress and PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves another type of stress: traumatic stress. We feel traumatic stress when something is so terrifying or overwhelming that it’s beyond our ability to cope. For example, being a victim of physical or sexual assault, surviving a natural disaster, or witnessing community or domestic violence are experiences that can lead to traumatic stress.

Not everyone develops PTSD after a traumatic event. Multiple factors make certain people more at risk of developing PTSD, and chronic stress is one of them. Studies have found chronic stress can change the brain in a way that contributes to PTSD symptoms. Chronic stress can affect the brain areas involved with processing fear and give you an exaggerated fear response. This can make you more susceptible to PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event[8].

How to cope with chronic stress

Although stress is an involuntary response, there are ways you can actively take steps to lower your stress response. This involves activating your body’s relaxation response through intentional and evidence-based methods. You can also find ways to check in with yourself regularly to ensure your stress levels don’t get too unmanageable.

If you live with chronic stress, you must take action. Here are some simple steps you can follow to start managing chronic stress.

Focus on daily habits

Maintaining a routine with plenty of restful sleep, regular exercise, and a balanced diet is crucial in managing stress. Sleep helps you be more emotionally resilient; exercise helps reduce stress hormones like cortisol, and a nutritious diet fuels your body to deal with whatever comes your way. They may seem small, but these daily habits make the most significant difference.

Sleep is crucial. Chronic stress often disrupts sleep patterns, which can contribute to fatigue and mood changes and leave you more vulnerable to depression. A consistent sleep schedule and a relaxing bedtime routine can improve sleep quality. To feel more relaxed, try incorporating mindfulness meditation or gentle stretching before bedtime.

Practice relaxation

Think about incorporating evidence-based stress reduction techniques into your daily routine. Some examples include mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation; they’ve all been proven effective in calming the nervous system.

Relaxing is all about bringing your body back to baseline when it cannot do so independently. These practices deactivate the stress response, promote self-awareness, and help you break the cycle of chronic stress. Find a way to dedicate just a few daily minutes to these techniques.

Cultivate supportive relationships

One of the risk factors of chronic stress is having a limited social support system. Commit to building relationships and connecting to loved ones. Contact friends, family, or support groups to share your feelings and experiences.

Social support is a powerful buffer against the negative effects of chronic stress. Engaging in meaningful conversations and activities with loved ones can give you emotional validation – plus, it strengthens your network of people you can count on!

Seek mental health support

If chronic stress becomes overwhelming, seeking professional help may be needed. Mental health professionals can provide effective coping strategies for chronic stress tailored just for you. Therapy can offer you a safe space to explore any underlying issues that may be contributing to chronic stress and figure out new ways to cope.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer specialized treatment programs for anxiety, PTSD, and depression that can help you overcome any mental health conditions that may have arisen from chronic stress. We also have a unique private treatment program for high-profile individuals who may be working in high-pressure careers more likely to cause chronic stress.

Our founder, Dr. Gregory Jantz, created the proven Whole Person Care method in the 1980s to care for you as a whole person instead of just treating your symptoms. For several decades, we have been helping people see themselves as more than just their mental health diagnosis.

Don’t let chronic stress define your life any longer. Get in touch with us today by calling 1-888-771-5166 or verify your insurance.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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