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April is Stress Awareness Month: What is Chronic Stress?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Each year during Stress Awareness Month, we publish a series of articles about stress: what it is, why we experience it, and what we can do about it. We also offer statistics on the prevalence of stress in our communities and advice on how to handle stress that becomes chronic, toxic, or dangerous to our health and wellbeing. We’ll publish several articles on stress over the next few weeks, so keep checking back here for more, or follow us on Facebook to get notified about our new articles in your News Feed.

Now let’s get straight to the subject: stress.

What is Stress?

Everyone knows about stress, because everyone experiences stress. It’s part of being human. From children to adolescents to adults, we all deal with some type of stress every day. Not all stress is bad: some stress serves a vital survival function. It keeps us safe and vigilant in the present and causes us to prepare appropriately for events in the future. This type of stress is called positive stress, and it’s a big part of why humans succeed as a species. Unfortunately, though, positive stress is not the only type of stress humans experience.

Before we discuss the different types of stress, though, we’ll offer a basic definition of stress from the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, so we’re all on the same page:

“Stress (noun): The physiological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave. For example, it may be manifested by palpitations, sweating, dry mouth, shortness of breath, fidgeting, accelerated speech, augmentation of negative emotions (if already being experienced), and longer duration of stress fatigue. Severe stress is manifested by the general adaptation syndrome. By causing these mind–body changes, stress contributes directly to psychological and physiological disorder and disease and affects mental and physical health, reducing quality of life. See also chronic stress.”

This definition gives us the perfect segue to the topic of this article: the different types of stress. We’ll start with the type mentioned at the end of the definition: chronic stress. We’ll talk about general adaptation syndrome in a later article – keep an eye out for that one coming soon.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress, according to the APA, is:

“The physiological or psychological response to a prolonged internal or external event. The stressor need not remain physically present to have its effects. Recollections of it can substitute for its presence an sustain chronic stress.”

We need to point something out here. Although stress in humans is the result of internal or external events, it’s important to understand that stress is a physiological and/or psychological response to these events. Stress is not the event or stimuli itself: it’s how our body and mind react to these stimuli. Some reactions are unconscious and happen automatically. Some of our stress reactions, however, are within our control: we can modulate stress because it’s a response to a stimulus or an event. If we can identify both the stimulus and our response, then we can take steps to mitigate the power of the stimulus and the scope of our response.

We’ll come back to that later.

Now, let’s talk about the negative effects of chronic stress. Keep in mind that chronic stress is in a special category, because the original stressor – the initial event or stimulus – need not be present to trigger the stress response. That’s what makes it dangerous, and that’s why it can persist long after the stressful event.

Here’s a rule-of-thumb: when, over a six-month period, stressful days outnumber the non-stressful days, stress becomes chronic.

Chronic stress can either cause or contribute to the following physical problems:

  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased immune function
  • Heart Disease
  • Obesity
  • Fatigue

Chronic stress can either cause or contribute to the following emotional issues:

The thing that causes most of these problems is prolonged exposure to cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone. Click here to read our quick primer on cortisol.

Your Stress Response

We promised we’d get back to this – and here we are.

We mentioned that stress is a response to stimuli, and that in some cases, it’s possible to modulate or control our response to those stimuli. The point of modulating the stress response is not to eliminate it entirely – it’s a survival tool, remember – but rather, to prevent it from occurring when there is no imminent physical or psychological danger. We want to modulate our stress response to prevent the negative effects of chronic stress.

In other words, we want to learn to control our stress response in order to prevent prolonged exposure to cortisol.

How do we do that?

Thankfully, the techniques for controlling our stress response is relatively simple.

Not easy for everyone – but simple.

Here are four tried, true, evidence-based techniques for controlling the stress response, and preventing the negative effects of chronic stress:

  • Low intensity, moderate intensity, and high intensity exercise all work to relieve stress and reduce cortisol levels
  • A regular practice of yoga reduces acute stress, long-term stress, and circulating levels of cortisol.
  • Tai Chi. Evidence indicates that practicing tai chi can improve mood and reduce circulating levels of cortisol.
  • Research shows mindfulness practices such as mindful breathing, mindful meditation, and mindful walking relieve stress and reduce circulating levels of cortisol.

We understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to take up a new hobby or exercise routine. We urge people who experience chronic stress, though, to consider the consequences: prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause all the serious physical and emotional conditions mentioned above. Therefore, people under stress – who think it may become chronic – should consider our four suggested techniques.

The science tells us they work – but don’t take our word for it: click the links and check the evidence. We promise you’ll learn something valuable.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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