Harmful effects of chronic stress: A deep dive

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Stress, a universal experience, often has a variety of causes, including health problems, work-related challenges, financial difficulties, or relationship problems.

While stress can be a healthy motivator, helping us overcome obstacles and achieve goals, chronic stress can have a negative impact on our overall well-being.

Jeffrey Birk, Ph.D., a researcher studying the relationship between emotions and health at Columbia University’s Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, discusses the nature of stress and its effects on the human body.

How Stress Works

Stress throws the body off balance and puts it in a state of imbalance.

Typically, the feeling of stress arises when we feel that the demands of a situation are greater than our ability to deal with them. This response causes the body to release cortisol and other stress hormones.

These hormones can take a toll on our bodies when their levels remain elevated over a long period of time due to chronic stress.

Adaptive Stress Response: The Ideal Situation

In the short term, stress can be beneficial. Our body adapts to challenges by releasing catecholamines like adrenaline that temporarily mobilize our energy to respond to the situation. Stress hormones like cortisol help us focus our energy so we can solve problems effectively. Once balance is restored, stress hormone levels drop.

Chronic stress and its effects

Chronic stress that occurs over a period of time is the result of persistent or frequently recurring stressors.

This type of stress keeps the body’s stress response system (HPA axis) activated and causes high levels of stress hormones.

Research shows that chronic stress can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, trigger irregular heartbeats, increase inflammation, and increase feelings of anxiety and irritability.

These effects can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diseases and harmful lifestyle choices such as smoking.

Differentiation between normal and chronic stress

While normal and chronic stress are similar, they differ in their duration and effects on the body.

Short-term stress typically causes temporary anxiety, headaches, or fatigue, but balance generally returns after a short period of time.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to prolonged emotional overload, physical exhaustion, palpitations or unexplained persistent pain.

manage stress

It is crucial to identify and address sources of stress effectively.

Techniques like physical exercise, mindfulness meditation, spending time with loved ones, and slow breathing have been shown to reduce the effects of chronic stress.

Effective stress management can significantly improve well-being and reduce the risk of future health problems.

Even under challenging life circumstances, such as coping with a chronic illness, stress can be successfully managed with the right approach.

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The study was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

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