Chronic Stress: Its Impact on the Body and Mind
The symptoms of chronic stress are as diverse as the people they affect.
Everyone experiences short-term stress from time to time, and that’s not always a bad thing – temporary stress can spur you to do your best work, rise to a challenge or avoid danger. For some people, however, the stress response gets stuck in the “on” position for days, weeks or months. That’s chronic stress. Left untreated, chronic stress can increase your risk for a host of serious health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Chronic stress is on the rise as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and associated concerns. T Newsome, MD, an internal medicine physician with Adventist Medical Group, estimated that, during 2020, 75% of his patients reported elevated stress levels. Just because more people are dealing with chronic stress, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to recognize. This condition takes many forms, both physical and mental.
WHEN WORRIES GET PHYSICAL
Chronic stress isn’t like a cut, a broken bone or another physical injury, but it can have physical symptoms. A backache that won’t go away, a sore neck, a stiff jaw, or sudden, unexplained weight loss or gain could be signs of chronic stress.
“Patients with chronic stress may report fatigue or overall malaise,” Dr. Newsome said. “Migraines and tension headaches can result from stress, as can neck pain, back pain, insomnia and oversleeping. Erectile dysfunction can affect men who are dealing with long-term stress.”
What do the physical manifestations of stress have in common? Nearly all of them could be attributed to other causes, which is why it’s important to seek help from a medical professional. Start with your doctor, who can determine whether chronic stress is present and, if so, what to do about it – including whether you would benefit from a referral to a mental health professional.
“The moment you feel like symptoms are interfering with daily life, such as your ability to work or attend school, it’s time to seek medical attention,” Dr. Newsome said. “That doesn’t mean you’ll need to take medication. Sometimes, receiving advice on how to manage stress is all patients need.”
For patients dealing with chronic stress and associated depression, Dr. Newsome often prescribes a combination treatment – an antidepressant and therapy with a mental health professional. This can produce better outcomes than either treatment alone, according to Dr. Newsome. Talking with a mental health professional can help patients identify stressors and learn how to focus their thoughts away from them.
STRESS ON YOUR MIND
Stress can cause a variety of mental symptoms. They can be just as disruptive and debilitating as their physical counterparts – and equally as varied.
“The physical effects of acute stress do not last long, but some people find themselves in a constant state of heightened alertness, which is chronic stress,” said Chad Lennon, MD, a psychiatrist at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center. “Untreated chronic stress manifests itself through behaviors and emotions, cognitively and physically, and it affects the whole body. As a result, symptoms put pressure on the body for an extended period of time, which is very unhealthy.”
Chief among the mental manifestations of chronic stress are depression and anxiety, but others include forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and poor motivation. Dr. Lennon agrees it’s important to speak with your doctor about possible symptoms of chronic pain, especially if you notice certain red flags. If symptoms continue after your initial treatment, Dr. Lennon recommends seeing a mental health professional.
“Long-term stress can affect you not only physically but mentally as well,” he said. “Knowing when you should see a mental health professional will help improve your health physically and mentally. If you develop serious health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure or a weakened immune system, it is time to seek out professional help.”
A mental health professional will assess your symptoms, recommend treatment and keep you on track with a course of care so you can be mentally and physically well.