How to Break the Cycle of Chronic Stress 

Stress does not discriminate against age, ethnicity, religion or sex. It is an extremely common, burdening feeling that can lead to an unhealthy body and immune system if it becomes chronic.   

About 33% of people report feeling extreme stress, according to the American Institute of Stress. Roughly 77% of people experience stress that affects their physical health, and another 73% of people have stress that impacts their mental health.  

Chronic stress vs. acute stress 

Acute stress, also known as everyday stress, results from specific, unpredictable events or situations. Everyday stress might come from a near car accident or while preparing to give a presentation in front of a large crowd.  

This type of stress can sometimes be good for individuals, because the cortisol released during these moments provides the kind of energy the mind and body needs to deal with the challenge at hand. Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone.  

Chronic stress occurs when someone consistently feels pressured and overwhelmed. When a person fails to outright address the stresses of everyday life – such as finances, relationships, and issues at work – they repeatedly release stress hormones. Since the body’s stress response system is not designed to be activated so often, the body and mind often suffer while experiencing this type of prolonged stress.   

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on stress  

Nearly eight out of 10 Americans reported that COVID-19 has caused them stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).  

Due to chronic stress caused by the pandemic, the following physical and mental issues became more prevalent across the United States:  

  • Alcohol use  
  • Sleep loss 
  • Weight gain  

Physical health was widely disregarded by Americans early in the pandemic. A survey conducted by the APA revealed that 47% of people delayed or canceled health care services. Another 53% reported being less physically active than they wanted. Ignoring physical health concerns can also lead to mental health concerns. 

Risk factors for chronic stress  

  • Chronic physical illness or injury 
  • Emotional issues or disorders (anger, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, etc.) 
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use 
  • Traumatic life events (natural disasters, thefts, acts of physical and sexual assault, etc.)  
  • Genetics  
  • Lack of exercise  
  • Too much or too little sleep 
  • Unhealthy eating

Some risk factors – like substance use and sleep issues – have bidirectional relationships with chronic stress, meaning they can both result from and cause chronic stress.  

Negative health effects of chronic stress  

If left untreated, chronic stress can lead to these physical health issues:  

  • Frequent or serious colds  
  • Gastrointestinal problems  
  • Headaches and migraines  
  • Inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome  
  • Long-term heart and blood vessel problems  
  • Muscle tension  
  • Respiratory issues like shortness of breath and rapid breathing  

Tips to manage and reduce chronic stress 

Preventing and managing long-term stress can lower the risk for serious health conditions.   

  • Regular exercise  
  • Adequate sleep; seven to eight hours each night 
  • Maintaining a social support network 

Those suffering from chronic stress should consider listing all the overwhelming projects and commitments in their life. Identify priority tasks and cut back on others to mitigate stress. Setting realistic expectations and positively reframing seemingly stressful situations can make life more manageable. Try to keep challenges in perspective and strive for a positive outlook on life.  

If overwhelming feelings of stress do not subside, seek consultation. Meeting with a licensed mental health professional can help manage stress and lead to the behavioral changes needed to improve overall health.  

Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org. 

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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