4 Min Read

The Long-Term Consequences of Chronic Stress

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Almost every human being experiences different types of stress from time to time. After all, stressors are everywhere, be it unreasonable workloads, New York traffic, school deadlines, and family drama. People can usually overcome short-lived or low levels of stress with stress management techniques or simple coping strategies. Sometimes, stress levels return to normal on their own once the stressful situation passes. However, experiencing particularly high-stress levels or living in a prolonged state of stress can have serious long-term consequences on your mental, emotional, and physical health, not to mention your lifespan.

chronic stress mental health

Stress statistics and physiology

According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), 77 percent of Americans experience physical symptoms of stress with regularity, while 73 percent feel that stress regularly impacts their mental health. One-third of respondents to the AIS survey felt they lived with extreme stress, while 48 percent believed their stress levels had increased in the past five years.

Stress is a natural, biological response to the high demands of life. When an event triggers a stress response, your brain’s hypothalamus instantly signals your body to release hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help your body prepare for physical activity. Short-term, acute stress, sometimes called a fight-or-flight or survival response can be a good thing, helping you deal with immediate danger. Severe stress is temporary, and when the threat has passed, your stress hormones return to normal levels.

These short-term spurts of stress hormones impact your body in different ways. Physically, your muscles tense up, you breathe harder and faster, your blood pressure rises, your liver produces more blood sugar, and you may feel pain in your stomach. Luckily, your body has a short-term stress management system. When acute stress subsides, these physical stress symptoms also fade.

Long-term health problems

With chronic stress, sometimes referred to as toxic stress, your body experiences these same physical consequences, only for a more extended period of time, causing severe health problems. Continuously tensed muscles result in headaches and fatigue. Consistently high blood pressure and heart rates can lead to cardiovascular diseases like heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and hypertension.

Long-term stress also wreaks havoc on your immune system. Just like your hypothalamus releases stress hormones as a short-term response to stressors, your immune system releases hormones to help you respond quickly to potential injuries or illnesses. Chronic stress puts this immune function in overdrive, wearing down the immune system and making you more susceptible to colds, infections, and autoimmune diseases.

Researchers have also linked chronic stress to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections, ulcers, sexual dysfunction, skin and hair problems, and even cancer. Although each of these conditions is physically dangerous in and of itself, chronic stress affects more than one area of your physiology and severely impacts your lifespan.

Psychological stress

In addition to physical consequences, high levels of stress or prolonged stress response can have a severe impact on your psychological well-being. Mental health problems stemming from too much stress can range from irritability and feelings of helplessness to major depression and anxiety disorder. Some people attempt to alleviate psychological stress with alcohol or substance abuse, which can lead to even more mental and physical health issues.

Stressors are all around, in both your personal and professional life. But for many people, chronic stress originates in the workplace. Long hours, conflicts with coworkers, competitive environments, overwhelming workloads, and other sources of work stress tend to be long-term conditions. The AIS found that job pressure was the number one cause of stress in the United States. In another study, respondents who felt they had little control over their professional life reported that work stress caused their personality to change significantly over time.

Chronic stress at work results in a syndrome called burnout. Burnout impacts your physical and mental health, causing fatigue, a negative attitude or state of mind, and unsatisfactory work practices like procrastination, tardiness, or missed deadlines. Sadly, burnout has become so commonplace that in 2019, the World Health Organization included the term “burnout” in its International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon.”

Stress management

While short-term stress is unavoidable, there are measures you can take to avoid chronic stress and its long-term consequences on your physical and mental health. Spending time with family and friends, enjoying regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation are great coping strategies and can also put you in a better state of mind to deal with stressors when they appear. Avoiding alcohol, excess caffeine, drug use, tobacco, and even too much technology can also contribute to effective stress management.

You should take steps to avoid unnecessary stress. For example, consider your sources of stress, whether that’s long hours at work or lunch with a particularly annoying friend, and create strategies to avoid those situations. Instead, use that time for relaxation and seeking emotional support from beloved friends and family members.

Stressful life events like divorce, loss of a family member, or other traumatic events are unavoidable, but they don’t have to result in chronic stress. Seek medical advice from a physician or schedule time with a mental health professional to discuss ideal stress management techniques.

Finding an effective way to deal with your sources of stress before it turns into a chronic condition will go a long way toward extending your lifespan, helping you avoid burnout, preserving your mental health, and promoting general wellness.

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