How to Know When Stress Becomes Chronic

Shandra Martinez

| 4 min read

So many things can unexpectedly pop up to cause stress in our everyday lives: A traffic jam that threatens to make you late for work, a parent who suddenly isn’t feeling well and needs assistance, or a young child who had trouble sleeping overnight and now the parents are tired and irritable. The body is built to take these ups-and-downs when stressful situations arise and then resolve themselves. We are pre-programmed to handle sudden stress with our fight-or-flight response. But when stress becomes persistent or chronic, and there is no downtime to relax in between bouts, it can lead to a wave of mental and physical health problems.
There’s evidence in this post-pandemic era that something has shifted when it comes to stress levels in the United States. Chronic stress is on the rise. Recent statistics shared by the American Psychological Association show more than a quarter of U.S. adults have said that at times they feel so much stress, it’s difficult to function normally in their everyday lives. And more than 75% of people surveyed say they’ve experienced at last one stress-related symptom in the last month. Some of these could include:
Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling nervous
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling sad
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Worsening of digestive or irritable bowel symptoms
  • Worsening of skin conditions like acne or eczema

Different types of stress

These stress symptoms are not one-size-fits-all. Dr. Kristyn Gregory, medical director of behavioral health for Blue Care Network of Michigan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said it’s important to recognize that not everyone feels the same kind of stress. Some people may feel mired in emotional stress. This can mean they are dealing with difficult emotions like sadness, frustration or even anger. Others can feel work-related stress. Still others can be facing relationship stress that can hinge on a partner, family members, children or friends.
“A lot of times, all these stressors kind of go together,” Dr. Gregory said. “And work stress can stress your relationships, relationships can stress your work, and kind of vice versa, but they can all cause the same type of symptoms physically. So even though it might be work stress versus relationship stress, you can still have that difficulty sleeping because you keep overthinking and replaying a certain scenario through your head.”
“That can lead to a sense of fatigue, feeling a loss of control. Everything becomes circular at a point. The difficulty sleeping leads to fogginess throughout the day, lower energy, further problems thinking, along with that continued focus on whatever your stressor is.”
This type of chronic stress can have serious impacts on a person’s mental and physical health. Mentally, it can lead to long-lasting feelings of depression and anxiety. Physically, it can lead to high blood pressure and even heart issues.

Ways to manage chronic stress

So in today’s fast-paced atmosphere with stressors sometimes around every corner, how should people manage their stress levels to keep them from becoming chronic problems? Dr. Gregory has several suggestions for developing good habits to manage stress, many of which already are key factors in building a healthy lifestyle. Some tips include:
  • Daily exercise, with an emphasis on cardio activities.
  • Practicing deep breathing during the day.
  • Social contact with others, including hugging family and close friends as a stress-reliever.
  • Creating a healthy sleep routine that includes at least a few minutes of pre-bedtime meditation and not looking at your phone or tech devices right before bed.
“Meditation doesn’t have to be some big thing where you sit in your corner cross-legged and chant,” she said. “It can be as simple as reciting a poem in your mind quietly. So you can’t be reciting something like that - a prayer, a poem, a chant - and also worrying at the same time, as your mind will not do two things at once.”
Want to learn more about what to do about chronic stress? Listen to this episode of “A Healthier Michigan Podcast” featuring a conversation with Dr. Kristyn Gregory, medical director of behavioral health for Blue Care Network of Michigan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, to hear more tips about what to do when stress becomes prolonged.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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