Stress is a natural response to challenging or threatening situations. It can be classified into two main types: acute stress, meaning short-term, and chronic stress, meaning long lasting.
Acute stress is a short-term response to a specific stressor, such as a sudden job loss or a car accident. The body’s stress response is activated, triggering the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Acute stress is typically resolved once the stressor is removed or the situation is resolved.
Acute stress response is how the body is designed to keep people alive. Being chased by a wild animal, threatened by a warring tribe, or enduring periods of starvation are all perfect scenarios for acute stress response, in which life-saving resources are optimized, including increased blood flow to muscles and eyes and downregulation of digestion and secondary functions. This response is designed to keep a person alive during the short period of stress.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a long-term response to ongoing or repeated stressors. This is a situation in which the normal physiological actions of the stress response are not helpful, and can become harmful. The physiological changes that optimize survival in the short-term, are detrimental to survival when carried out over a long period of time. Chronic stress can be caused by a wide variety of factors in modern society.
Causes of Chronic Stress
Any long-term stressor can cause chronic stress and different factors are more impactful for different people. What one person tolerate without difficulty could be enough to trigger a chronic stress response for someone else.
- Social factors such as isolation, social judgement, prejudice or discrimination.
- Family relationships including trauma or physical or psychological abuse.
- Societal issues including poverty, war or conflict.
- Life circumstances including financial problems, relationship issues, or work-related stress.
- Medical conditions including insomnia, sleep apnea, pain disorders that cause sleep deprivation, and chronic illness such as cancer, diabetes, or autoimmune disease.
Chronic stress can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems, including cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and mental health disorders. Also, chronic stress can lead to adrenal disregulation or adrenal fatigue, which is a situation in which the adrenal gland, which is responsible for making the stress hormones, is unable to keep up with the body’s demands.
Stress management techniques such as relaxation exercises, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful in managing both types of stress. The physical and mental health conditions that can result from chronic stress require their own care and management and any symptoms should be discussed with a doctor or health care provider.
Managing Chronic Stress
Managing stress is an important part of maintaining overall physical and mental health. The following are some stress management techniques that may be effective in reducing the long-term impact of stress:
- Relaxation exercises: Relaxation exercises are techniques used to help reduce stress and induce relaxation in the body and mind. There are various types of relaxation exercises, including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, and yoga. These exercises work by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to counteract the effects of the stress response and promote a state of calmness and relaxation. Regular practice of relaxation exercises can help to reduce the symptoms of stress and improve overall mental and physical health.
- Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a relaxation technique that involves taking deep, slow breaths to calm the body and mind. It is a simple and effective way to reduce stress, anxiety, and tension. To practice deep breathing, sit or lie down in a comfortable position and inhale deeply through the nose, filling the lungs with air. Hold the breath for a few seconds and then exhale slowly through the mouth, letting all the air out. Repeat this process several times, focusing on the sensation of the breath and releasing any tension or negative thoughts with each exhale. If you find it difficult to focus just on the breath, focus on counting. An exercise called “box breathing” can be very helpful. Inhale for a slow count of four, hold the breath for a slow count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold again for a count of four. With this technique you can focus on the count, rather than the breath, which some people find easier.Deep breathing can be done anytime and anywhere and is a valuable tool in managing stress and improving overall well-being.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique that involves tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups in a systematic way. This technique aims to reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation throughout the body. It typically involves working up from your feet and tensing each muscle group for a few seconds, then relaxing the muscles and focusing on the sensations of relaxation for a few seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. You can move up your body until you have tensed and relaxed every major muscle group. This process can be repeated several times by starting with the feet and progressing up to the face and scalp. It is commonly used as a stress reduction technique and can be helpful in managing anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.
- Guided imagery: Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that involves using mental pictures to create a calming and peaceful environment in the mind. It is a form of meditation that involves visualizing oneself in a specific, tranquil setting, such as a beach or a forest, and imagining the sights, sounds, and sensations of that environment. This technique can be helpful in reducing stress, anxiety, and pain, and can improve overall well-being. A trained therapist can guide individuals through this technique or it can be practiced through self-guided imagery exercises or by using an online or app-based meditation program.
- Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that focuses on bringing attention to the present moment and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. It is as simple as sitting in an upright posture for three minutes and noticing your thoughts. When a thought arises, simply notice it and let it go without getting attached to it and following it into a story. If you do find that you’ve gone into a story about what could happen or what should have happened, just let it drop. Mindfulness meditation has been found to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Regular practice of mindfulness meditation has also been associated with improvements in immune function, brain function, and overall well-being. This can be practiced by yourself, with the help of a teacher, or by using any number of online or app based resources.
- Physical exercise: Physical exercise refers to any physical activity that gets your body moving, uses your muscles, and increases your circulation. It can include activities such as running, cycling, swimming, or weightlifting, that people think of as “exercise.” It can also be as simple as walking the dog, doing the housework, or Regular physical exercise has numerous benefits for the body and mind, including improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, improving mental health, reducing stress and anxiety, and increasing overall energy levels. Doing something active daily can benefit your health tremendously.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help individuals identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to stress. It can be effective in managing stress and associated mental health disorders. This is done under the guidance of a qualified therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor.
- Social support: Strong social networks can provide emotional support and help individuals cope with stress. Spending time with friends and family, joining a support group, or seeking therapy can be effective ways to manage stress.
- Time management: Effective time management can help individuals reduce work-related or obligation-related stress by prioritizing tasks and managing responsibilities in a structured and organized way.
- Self-care: Engaging in activities that promote self-care, such as taking a bath, getting a massage, or practicing a hobby, can help individuals relax and reduce stress.
- It is important for individuals to identify and implement stress management techniques that work for them. A comprehensive approach that includes a combination of techniques may be most effective in managing stress and improving overall well-being.
When to See a Doctor For Stress
While stress is a normal part of life, chronic stress can have significant negative effects on physical and mental health. It is important to seek medical help for ongoing or severe stress symptoms that interfere with daily life.
Some signs that it may be time to seek medical help for stress include:
- Persistent physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, or muscle tension that do not improve with self-care.
- Changes in mood or behavior, such as increased irritability, anxiety, or depression.
- Difficulty sleeping, including insomnia or excessive sleepiness.
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering important details.
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol to cope with stress.
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness.
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Individuals who are experiencing any of these symptoms should seek medical help as soon as possible. A healthcare provider can evaluate the individual’s symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment, which may include medications, therapy, or lifestyle changes.
It is important for individuals to prioritize their mental and physical health and seek medical help when needed. Stress management techniques can be effective in reducing the impact of stress, but in some cases, professional help may be necessary to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.
Recovery from chronic stress can be a gradual process that involves a combination of stress management techniques, lifestyle changes, and, in some cases, medical treatment.
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