The Impact of Chronic Stress on Our Minds and Bodies

Everyone experiences stress from time to time.  Some people are able to respond efficiently to stressful situations and return to baseline with relative ease.  Others, however, maintain their stressed states, either as a function of endogenous factors, or due to the continued presence of a stressor.  Regardless of the cause, the bottom line is that when our stress levels remain elevated on a consistent basis, our mental and physical health can be compromised.  

Stress, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is the brain’s response to any demand.  Stress can be triggered by many different things including:

  • the routine pressures of work, family, and daily responsibilities
  • sudden or negative life changes such as losing a job, divorce, or illness
  • traumatic events such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disaster

In the short-term, stress can be helpful; it improves our motivation, performance, and even boosts immune functioning.  During a high stress situation, our bodies release nerve chemicals and hormones that allow us to face a threat or flee to safety.  However, when stress reactions persist over the long term, the immune system becomes weakened over time and our digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally.  

This type of chronic stress has been shown to increase our risk of headaches, viral infections, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger, and irritability.  Over time, chronically elevated stress levels can lead to serious health problems such as:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • other illnesses

The good news is that we can all take practical steps to maintain our health and minimize the impact of stress in our lives.

Some helpful tips include:

  • learn relaxation skills, such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness exercises
  • practice healthy eating and sleep habits, as well as regular exercise
  • stay connected to people who provide support.
  • set priorities: decide what must get done and what can wait
  • learn to say NO to new tasks if you are feeling overwhelmed
  • seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.

If you or someone you know is overwhelmed by stress, seek help from a health professional. If you or someone close to you is in crisis, call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).