Not feeling quite like yourself lately? Wondering if it could be chronic stress? When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to a lot of serious issues both physically and mentally.
The APA writes, “Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes wear and tear on the body. It's not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.”
Below are some signs that your own sympathetic nervous system may be chronically activated.
When there is a sudden loud noise, do you jump? If you feel a light touch, do you flinch violently? If you find yourself doing these things more than usual, your nervous system may be on high alert.
Do you never quite feel relaxed? You shouldn’t constantly feel on edge—rest should be your natural state when you are not actively engaged with a stressor. If it isn’t, you may have chronic stress.
Do you find you have a harder time lately than usual resisting bad habits? Chronic stress could be the culprit. The American Institute of Stress explains, “Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.”
There is a close relationship between our digestive tracts and our moods. The American Institute of Stress explains heartburn is more likely when you have stress, and, “Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomach ache.”
It may sound weird, but blushing often can be a sign of chronic stress. Psychology Today explains, “It is thought that blushing is the result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress.“
Right now, are your muscles relaxed, or are you holding tension in your shoulders or other parts of your body? When you are chronically stressed, it can be harder for your muscles to release tension. You may find yourself with muscle knots and tight bands.
Not getting the high-quality sleep you used to? That can also point toward stress. Sleep Foundation writes, “Not everyone develops chronic insomnia due to constant stress, but those with anxiety disorder are at higher risk of experiencing insomnia symptoms. Additionally, changes to one’s sleep schedule that occur due to life events or changes can also lead to insomnia. Once chronic insomnia takes hold, people often feel anxious about sleeping and other aspects of their lives. This increases day-to-day stress, which in turn exacerbates insomnia symptoms.”
When your nervous system, muscles, and other body systems are taxed for long enough, it is possible for symptoms of chronic pain to develop.
Loma Linda University Health explains that while pain can increase stress, stress can also increase pain: “Research has shown that individuals who are under this constant state of stress experience a decrease or damage of cognitive function to the brain, lowered IQ, and, as a result of the chemical response, the pain becomes more pronounced. More pain, more stress. More stress, more pain.”
Rapid heartbeat is a common symptom of chronic elevated levels of stress or anxiety. If you regularly feel your pulse racing, that is a pretty good sign that you are stressed.
When you are sustaining aspects of a fight-or-flight response on a regular or continuous basis, that exerts a lot of physical stress on your body, not just mental stress. It demands resources to keep your heart racing, your muscles tense, your body alert and ready for action.
As a result, if you have been sustaining a stressful state of body and mind for a prolonged time, it is likely that you will start to feel run down. Fatigue may become more and more your “normal.” Indeed, this may be the case even if you are still getting plenty of sleep. But it is bound to be even more pronounced if you are experiencing insomnia.
One more sign that you may be experiencing chronic stress is if your overall mental state has taken a nosedive or has been relatively low for a long period of time.
Certainly if you have a lot of problems on the surface of your life, you may feel unhappy, and it may be quite obvious that you are stressed. Struggling with health, money, relationships, or other serious issues takes an obvious toll.
But it is possible to be chronically stressed and not really aware of the reasons if you do not stop to think about them.
Maybe on the surface, your life seems full and meaningful. Perhaps there are a lot of things that you are legitimately happy with and grateful for, but you still feel a gnawing sense of emptiness, tension or discontentment.
That could be a sign that there are underlying issues you have yet to address or recognize. Even though you are not aware of them consciously, they may still be making life difficult for you in ways that your body recognizes, even if your conscious mind dismisses them.
It may be worth it to try and dig into those issues and ask yourself some difficult questions about your feelings. That process may feel more stressful on the surface, but may ultimately help to relieve some of that underlying chronic stress as you shed light on your problems and discover solutions.
If you do notice some of these signs and symptoms of chronic stress, it is important to pay attention and take action.
Chronic stress may not seem like a big deal when it begins, but over a timeframe of years, it can lead to physical and psychological complications that may be difficult to resolve and in some cases may be irreversible.
Do what you can to remove unnecessary stressors from your life, take breaks for self-care, and solve whatever problems can be solved. Consider getting help from a therapist if you need it. Take steps to get more sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise, and think about taking a supplement to support cortisol health like Phosphatidylserine, Ashwagandha, or magnesium.
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