What Is Chronic Stress?

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Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Often, stress is acute (short-term) and goes away quickly. When stress persists and becomes ongoing, it is known as chronic stress.

In the short term, stress can be beneficial. It helps you avoid danger, handle immediate situations, and build resiliency. However, if stress becomes prolonged, occurs too often, or isn't managed well, it can have negative health effects.

Read on to learn more about chronic stress and how it can be managed.

Stressed businessman working on laptop at desk

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

What Is Chronic Stress?

The body has a built-in system for handling stress called the stress response (also known as the "fight or flight" response). When an acute stressor presents, the body reacts through a variety of brain and body reactions, such as the release of adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, that prepares us to deal with the potential threat.

The response is meant to be momentary, and the body attempts to maintain homeostasis (stability during change) and go back to normal once the stressor has been dealt with. If the stress continues, however, the body can't return to its baseline, and hormones like cortisol levels can stay high for too long.

How Common Is Stress?

The American Institute of Stress found that 55% of Americans experience stress on a daily basis, which is 20% higher than the global average. The most common source is work-related stress, with up to 94% of people saying they feel stressed at work.

Chronic Stress Examples 

What causes chronic stress is individual to the person, but there are some common sources of stress (positive and negative). These include:

  • Family changes: Getting married or divorced, birth of a child, death of a loved one, relationship/family problems, etc.
  • Work: Starting a new job, losing a job, retiring, difficulties at work, being unable to find a job, etc.
  • Financial: Having money problems, difficulty meeting basic needs such as housing or food, etc.
  • Life changes: Moving, starting a new school, etc.
  • Health: Serious illness (in oneself or a loved one), life stages (such as menopause), physical conditions (for example, sleep apnea can raise cortisol levels), etc.
  • Routine events: Traffic/commuting, family responsibilities and commitments, etc.

Types of Chronic Stress

Causes of chronic stress can be physical, mental, or emotional, and tend to fall into the categories of:

  • Relationship
  • Emotional
  • Traumatic
  • Location-Related
  • Work-Related

Symptoms 

Stress is associated with a number of symptoms.

Fatigue

Stress can cause fatigue and is associated with other conditions that can also cause fatigue. People who seek medical attention for stress-related exhaustion often also experience depression or anxiety.

Gastrointestinal Difficulties

The gastrointestinal system contains hundreds of millions of neurons that communicate with the brain. This is why we sometimes feel "butterflies in our stomachs." This also means that stress may trigger or exacerbate gastrointestinal discomforts, such as:

Stress can cause changes in the gut bacteria, which can affect mood. Stress can also affect digestion and nutrient absorption.

The gastrointestinal problems associated with stress particularly affect people with chronic bowel disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.

Does Stress Cause Ulcers?

Despite common belief, stomach ulcers are usually caused by bacterial infection, not stress. However, ulcers can bother you more when you are stressed.

Difficulty Sleeping

Stress can cause sleep difficulties, and sleep difficulties can exacerbate stress. Problems with the quantity or quality of sleep can have health consequences and are associated with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health issues.

Aches and Pains

Stress causes the muscles to tense up. This reflex is beneficial for protecting the body during acute stress situations and should relax when the stressor is over. However, chronic stress can cause the muscles to tense for long periods. This can cause:

Frequent Illness and Infections

The stress response, and the hormones that are released, protect the body in threatening situations by stimulating the immune system but can weaken the immune system if the stress continues and stress hormone levels stay elevated.

This can lower the body's ability to fight foreign invaders, making you more susceptible to viral illnesses (such as cold or flu) or other infections, and increasing recovery time from illness or injury.

Stress Eating

During acute stress, the release of adrenaline can temporarily suppress appetite. Another stress hormone, cortisol, increases appetite and may increase motivation (including motivation to eat). If stress continues and cortisol stays high, increased eating ("stress eating") can occur.

Sex and Reproductive Effects

Stress can affect sex and reproduction in the following ways:

  • Reduced sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Production and maturation of sperm
  • Menstrual changes (like irregular cycles, premenstrual syndrome, or painful periods)
  • Conception, pregnancy, and postpartum adjustment

Other Symptoms

Other complications of chronic stress include:

Causes

Chronic stress is caused by prolonged or repeated exposure to the same or multiple stressors. Frequently activating the stress response leads to increased exposure to stress hormones.

Systemic stressors can also result in chronic stress. This can include stress that stems from discrimination, trauma, or inequities related to factors such as:

  • Racism
  • Discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Poverty
  • Lack of access to adequate education
  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Lack of access to healthcare services

Systemic stressors must be countered by systemic change, not only by individual stress management.

What Are the Effects of Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is associated with a number of health conditions, including:

How Is Chronic Stress Treated?

The approach to stress management is often multifaceted, including lifestyle changes, social support efforts, mindfulness, and seeking professional help.

Lifestyle

Some lifestyle changes you can make to help combat stress include:

Social Support

Social support efforts that can help combat stress include:

  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Engaging in physical affection with loved ones or pets
  • Joining a support group online or in-person
  • Getting involved in the community by taking classes, volunteering, or joining clubs

Relaxation

Though it's easier said than done, relaxing can reduce stress. Some relaxation techniques include:

  • Mind-body approaches such as mindfulness, deep breathing, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, meditation, or yoga
  • Be creative or engage in activities you enjoy, such as music, dance, reading, writing, crafting, or gardening
  • Let out your emotions by laughing or crying

Other Practical Ways to Reduce Stress

Getting practical about how your lifestyle influences your stress levels can help. Ways to do this include:

  • Identify your stressors
  • Look for solutions
  • Make a plan in advance for how to manage stress when it arises

Professional Help

Chronic stress can't always be effectively managed on your own. A mental health professional can help you with strategies through:

Depending on symptoms, antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication may also be prescribed. Discuss medication options with your healthcare provider if you think they could benefit your stress management plan.

When to Seek Help For Stress

Talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you:

  • Feel overwhelmed
  • Have fears you can't control
  • Have memories of a traumatic event
  • Are unable to function well at home, at school, or at work
  • Feel you need help for any reason

If you or a loved one are experiencing stress that is leading to thoughts of suicide, call 911 immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

Stress can be acute, chronic, or episodic. In the short-term, stress is beneficial, allowing us to react to threatening situations and build resiliency. Chronic stress, however, is not helpful and can cause health concerns such as mental health conditions, gastrointestinal discomfort, and sleep difficulties. It is also associated with several health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.

Approaches to chronic stress management include lifestyle practices, relaxation techniques, and social support. Some people may also find it helps to see a healthcare provider or mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell 

Chronic stress is not just unpleasant—it can take a large toll on your physical and mental health. If you are finding yourself overwhelmed or frequently feeling stressed, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional to assess your stress levels and make a stress management plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does stress affect the body?

    Stress can have behavioral, emotional, physical, and social effects. Stress affects various body functions, including:

  • How do you test for chronic stress?

    Healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and other specialists can gather information by talking to the person, having them fill out a questionnaire, checking physical symptoms (such as assessing hormone levels or looking for a physical cause for the stress), and running tests (such as blood tests) if they see fit.

  • How long does it take to heal from stress?

    Recovery from stress depends on several factors, including the type of stress (acute or chronic), the cause of the stress, the person's individual characteristics, and the treatment involved (if applicable).

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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