Is Chronic Stress the New Normal?

For many of us, a good day means that we stayed on schedule, worked through deadlines, and completed the day’s responsibilities. Apart from a few frustrations and hassles, most of what we do doesn’t seem all that stressful to us. We’ve gotten used to spending our time putting tasks to rest and solving problems. We know the ins-and-outs of most of our daily stressors, how best to tend with them, and have confidence that we can see them through, because they are time-limited.

For the most part, routine stressors are within our control. Just this awareness goes a long way toward buffering us against the short-term impact of energizing body hormones and nerve chemicals that help us to think and act quickly.

But, chronic stress is another situation altogether. Chronic stress involves situations that we have to endure for prolonged periods of time and over which we perceive we have little control. It may involve a lawsuit that seems to have no end, years of unemployment, ongoing conflict between us and an ex-partner over finances or children, ongoing family problems, or chronic illness in our loved ones or us. Situations like these used to occur more infrequently in our lives. But, times have changed. More of us have a chronic threat of job, home or healthcare loss. And, natural disaster, worldwide terrorism, identity theft, environmental changes that threaten water and food supply, and new strains of viruses appearing throughout the world are touching all of our lives today (The Global Organization for Stress; The American Psychological Association’s American Institute of StressBest and Worst Most Stressed Out Countries).

Indeed, chronic stress seems to be more commonplace today (Stress Levels Soar in America 30% in 30 years). But, its negative effects on our well being are far more serious than the common cold or digestive upset that comes with short-term stress. There’s a large body of research that shows that persistent long-term stress causes serious changes in the body that depletes us of nerve chemicals, hormones and enzymes vital to physical processes. Chronic stress has been shown to cause or advance many degenerative diseases that include Type 2 diabetes and heart disease (also known as metabolic syndrome), disorders of the immune system and also depression.

The Body’s Response to Stress

The brain has a built-in control and stress response system that regulates the flow of body hormones and chemicals that give us the physical and mental strength to cope with routine stressors. It signals the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, fatty acids, and sugar into the blood stream to help us to think and act quickly. The digestive and immune system temporarily shut down so that body processes are oriented toward helping us to cope or run away from the threat on hand. Also, body chemicals (minerals, nerve transmitters and hormones) shift on a cellular level to help us cope with the stress. As the stressor decreases, the chemicals that energized and buffered us against the short-term impact of stress recede to normal levels.

But, with prolonged stress cortisol, fatty acids, and blood sugar continuously circulate through the bloodstream that begins to alter the integrity of the body’s cells. The body’s cells become less permeable, which makes it difficult for nutrients, cells salts, and nerve chemicals to flow through them. Too, the chronic flow of blood sugar means that the pancreas has to be on watch 24-7 to make sure it stores the excess blood sugar so we don’t have a stroke.

stress-chartChronic stress causes the brain to spend ever more time directing activities to support the stress response and less time delivering oxygen and nutrients to the cells of the body. Over time, nerve cells lose what they need to thrive that prevents their repair and regeneration, accelerates the rate at which our cells age  (New Science on Stress: Can We Turn Back the Biological Clock?), may lead to a reduction in the size of our brains (Stress and the Shrinking Brain) and is strongly linked to a number of illnesses and disorders that can threaten our mortality and quality of life, such as cancer, obesity,  rheumatoid arthritis, Type II diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders (Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System ; Chronic stress and Mood DisordersHow Chronic Stress Can Lead To Depression). 

We Need A New Mindset to Cope With Chronic Stress

We tend to think of our response to stress, like a virus has invaded our bodies and is taking us over. Just think of the words we use when we feel stressed. We are on the edge, falling apart, having a nervous breakdown, overwhelmed, strung out, not myself, about to lose it or can’t take much more. These words suggest that our physiological response to stress is abnormal. This couldn’t be more wrong. The body’s fight-or-flight response to stress is normal and also protective. It’s the way our body energizes itself to either cope with the stressor on hand or run away from it. Recognizing that the stress response is our friend rather than enemy positions us to work with it rather than treat it like a virus that will go away on its own time.

Chronic stress necessitates that we get into a mindset of servicing our bodies with the same attention, interest and care that we give to our cars, homes, and beauty needs. People struggling with chronic degenerative illnesses understand this idea well. They have to eat well, get enough rest, and do all they can to hold their illness at bay, if they want to feel well and stop their disease from progressing further.

We need to practice daily self-care to repair and regenerate our bodies at a cellular level. We can start to eat in a way that builds a stronger brain and resists the negative effects of chronic stress (Building a Better Brain for Good Mental HealthThe Role of Inflammation in Depression). Also, a regular exercise regime will help us to drain the negative effects of the response to stress and to reengage the part of the nervous system that helps us to relax (20 Good Reasons to Get Moving ; Interval Training in Men. Exercise also helps us to increase brain levels of the hormones and nerve chemicals that stop premature aging by advancing the regeneration of the brain’s cells and nerves (Building a Better Brain for Good Mental HealthThe Power of Exercise: Buffering the Effect of Chronic Stress on Telomere Length). Also, daily relaxation and meditation exercises and time-out just to relax, rest and restore the body helps to return cortisol, fatty acids and blood sugar to normal levels

Positive self-care practices do a lot to keep us healthy during extremely stressful times and give us back a sense of control over our lives. But, we still need to find a way to keep influencing the direction of our lives, despite the chronic stressors that make us feel stuck. It is critical to our physical, emotional and spiritual health to regain our coping momentum.

Keep the Coping Momentum Going

If one door is closed find another one to open.

When we can’t positively turn around a chronic stressor, then we have to cope by finding something else that’s changeable to work on that relieves us from the tension, despair and meaninglessness that comes with chronic stress and also keeps us learning and growing.  There’s always something we can to restore meaning, continue to learn and grow, and gives us back a sense of control over our lives. It doesn’t matter how small or big. Perhaps, you have always wanted to learn another language, sport, play piano, or involve yourself in some group activity or charity work. The important thing to securing our health is that we keep trying to find doors of possibility open to us. Remember, if we keep trying to solve problems and open up new avenues of growth, we actually decrease the amount of chronic stress in our lives.

The hardiness approach to resilience and stress management calls this coping effort Compensatory Self-Improvment. To learn more about Compensatory Self-Improvement and to get examples of how to do it, see my article called Compensatory Self-Improvement: The Hardy Way to Forging Possibility.

I hope you liked today’s post and took away something new to help you to deal with your stress and to lead a healthier more satisfied life. Let me know by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s article to let friends know about it. To your ongoing resilience and health; Warm regards Deborah.

Note: Featured Photo illustration by Michael Helfenbein (Stress and the Shrinking Brain).

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4 Responses to “Is Chronic Stress the New Normal?”

  1. This is a great article, Debbie. It is so important for everyone to recognize the importance of continuing to cope with stressd, and with continuing stresses, this often means we need to do compensatory self-improvement.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

      Thank you Dr. Sal. How nice of you to take the time to comment today. And, thank you for your wonderful contributions on the Hardy Personality to the field of psychology. Warm regards Deborah.

  2. avatar Sara says:

    You speak of focusing on something we CAN control during times of chronic stress, to maintain some sense of control. Also, you speak of fight-flight reactios. In relation to children who have multiple demands placed on them and may not be allowed self-expression, could body-focused repititive disorders such as dermatillomania and trichotillomania be the body’s way of discharging the extra energy afforded by the stress response, while keeping the child “safe” and giving her a “battlefield” (her own body) in which she can conquer a problem (even if it is a pimple or itchy hair) and experience a feeling of power and victory?

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Sara, yes, most definitely body focused issues like skin picking or hair pulling are stress responses to feeling out of control or a lack of control. I very much like how you say it here: “the body’s way of discharging the extra energy afforded by the stress response, while giving the child a safe battlefield (her own body).” Bravo–beautifully articulated Sara. With such good awareness, then I say, find a battlefield that doesn’t produce so much scarring. The picking and pulling is also saying–I’m hurt and scarred (emotionally). It seems like you are doing a lot of self-discovery and research on this very important topic. Wonderful dear Sara. Keep it going forward and finding ways to deal with the lack of self-expression that doesn’t harm you. Like write, exercise, go to therapy, play music, get that stress out of you in a healthy, less destructive way. Warmly Deborah.


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