Have you ever felt overwhelmed and distressed? It’s normal. Everybody feels stressed sometimes. Stress is part and parcel of being human, and there is no living without stress. After all, stress keeps us alive. Stress helps us avoid harm and stay alive in instances where fight-or-flight is required. Once the dust settles, the body goes back to normal. However bodies cannot handle chronic stress, or stress that is ever-present and overbearing, for long periods of time without suffering.
When we realize and determine that we are in situations that are threatening, stress responses help us through the fight-or-flight response. When confronted with something terrifying, our fight-or-flight response, an acute stress response, kicks in and prepares our body for danger. The terms comes from how our ancestors many years ago had to deal with scary situations where either fighting or fleeing would save them. Fight-or-flight gets adrenaline and noradrenaline pumping, which can increase our heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. After about an hour, our bodies go back to normal.
Stress is both a stimulus and a response. When stress is a stimulus it is known as a stressor, or something that happens to the person. Stress a response is characterized by physiological arousal and negative affect.
Stress responses can be psychological, physiological, or behavioral. Psychological stress responses can come in the form of negative or positive emotions. Negative emotions include feelings of agitation, anxiety, distress, anger, and being overwhelmed, while positive emotions related to the feeling of being challenged or driven may occur. In relation to this, you may feel cognitive symptoms of stress such as constant worrying and being pessimistic. You might have a hard time focusing, have racing thoughts, become disorganized, and show poor judgement.
When stressed, you may feel your body become tense. Other physiological stress responses may include feeling that your heart rate and breathing become faster, and your blood pressure might rise. You might grind your teeth, clench your jaw, have a dry mouth, and have difficulty swallowing. You might sweat, shake, and feel nervous. You might feel like you have low energy and that your sex drive has been depleted. You may get headaches, an upset stomach, and chest pain. You might insomnia, colds, and infections.
Behavioral stress responses include having changes in appetite, avoiding responsibilities, and increasing use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. Stress manifests through body language as well such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing.
While we cannot literally fight or flee from the things that scare us today, this stress response still comes in handy. Today, stressors can vary from individual to individual. What can stress you may not stress out your friends at all. Everybody has different ways of getting stressed out and experiencing the feeling of being stressed.
Effects of Chronic Stress
Acute stress such as getting into the fight-or-flight mode is normal, but chronic stress is not. The effects of chronic stress are negative and therefore must be avoided, as they can result in serious health conditions.
Everybody experiences stress in different ways, where some ways are healthier than others. Poorly managed chronic stress such as through eating comfort foods, has been linked to the obesity epidemic.
If everyday stressors are not dealt with properly, such as when they are ignored or poorly managed, then chronic stress may follow. One can also experience chronic stress after traumatic events.
Chronic stress can be properly managed by maintaining a balanced diet, increasing physical activity, and getting good sleep. However if the effects of chronic stress persist, then you must seek help from a medical professional.
The effects of chronic stress include the following:
- cardiovascular disease, such as abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke
- eating disorders
- gastrointestinal problems, such as gastritis, GERD, irritable colon, and ulcerative colitis
- mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders
- menstrual problems
- muscle pain
- sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men, and loss of sexual desire for both men and women
- skin and hair problems, such as acne, eczema, hair loss, and psoriasis
- weakened immune system
Chronic Stress and Quality of Life
In Bay et. al’s (2011) study, the Quality of Life of individuals with mild to moderate brain injury had a relationship with chronic situational stress. the study defined Quality of Life as the overall impact on cognitive, physical, and psychosocial activities.
The World Health Organization defines Quality of Life (QoL) as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns.” Quality of Life is composed of a person’s “physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships, and their relation to salient features of their environment.”
The effects of chronic stress impact your Quality of Life. For instance, chronic stress affects you mentally. Effects of chronic stress include having trouble concentrating and acting efficiently. You may be more accident-prone. Your memory and learning abilities may be affected as well. Navarrete-Navarrete et. al’s (2010) study discussed how chronic stress worsened the Quality of Life of Lupus patients. The researchers found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was effective with significantly reducing their Quality of Life.
Effects of chronic stress affect people differently. In Lustyk et. al’s (2008) study, women with high PMS (premenstrual symptoms) had significantly more stress and poorer Quality of Life than women with low PMS. In Breuer et. al’s (2015) study, researchers found that chronic stress influenced Health-Related Quality of Life, and may affect treatment success in psoriasis patients.
It would be difficult to explain how every demographic experiences chronic stress, and what the particular effects of chronic stress on their Quality of Life would be. When the effects of chronic stress have become normalized it becomes difficult to distinguish what is normal and what is chronic stress. However, if you suspect that you may be suffering from the effects of chronic stress, do not be afraid to speak up about it with a health professional. After all, everybody experiences stress.