5 Signs The Stress You're Dealing With Isn't 'Normal' Stress

Therapists share the red flags your stress has become a bigger issue, plus tips for how to manage it.
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Chronic stress is detrimental for both your physical health and mental health.

From nerves about a final exam to wedding-day jitters, stress is a part of life. But all stress is not created equal.

“In simple terms, there is good stress, or eustress ... and bad stress, which is distress,” said Danyell Collins-Facteau, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks in Virginia Beach. “We know it’s impossible to avoid stress in the world that we live in, and small doses of good stress can be really motivating.”

For example, good stress can give us energy before a 5K run or make us perform better during a work presentation. This “normal” stress can be sudden or something you plan for, but either way, you know that it will be relatively brief and you’ll be able to recover from it, said Sheehan Fisher, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

On the other hand, chronic stress is longer-term and has no definitive ending. And chronic stress can have huge impacts on you, both physically and mentally.

“It’s important to remember that our bodies are well-equipped to handle stress in small doses. However, it’s the long-term or the chronic stress that can seriously impact the body, and no system of the body is immune,” Collins-Facteau said.

Examples of chronic stressors are far-reaching, but often they may be an unavoidable aspect of your life. For example, losing your glasses is a small stressor that can probably be remedied with a visit to the eye doctor, but some of the issues that lead to chronic stress — like medical conditions, poverty and living in a congested traffic area — may be unavoidable, Collins-Facteau explained.

Biases that marginalized communities face is another example of this. Racial discrimination, sexism and homophobia can all be prevalent chronic stressors, Fisher said. 

For people in marginalized groups, discrimination and microaggressions are (unfortunately) the way of the world — “you always had it your whole life,” Fisher said ― but it doesn’t negate the long-term impact this kind of chronic stress has. Marginalized people know they’re always at risk of discrimination or bias, so even if actual instances of discrimination don’t happen every day, there is still the constant threat that it can happen, he explained.

Below, therapists share what health issues to look out for if you experience chronic stress, as well as steps you can take to keep your bad stress under control: 

1. Rumination that can disrupt sleep

Studies show that chronic stress can lead to insomnia, poor sleep quality and more.

“What people often experience is they have trouble settling their minds and bodies,” Collins-Facteau said, which leads to people having a “hard time falling asleep or staying asleep.” 

Think about it: If your chronic stressor is an inability to pay debt that’s piled up, you won’t be able to just stop thinking about it when it’s time to go to bed. If anything, anxious thoughts may creep in as you’re trying to settle down to sleep because there are fewer distractions to keep your mind away from the stressor.

2. Muscle tension

“Muscle tension is an adaptive response by our body,” Collins-Facteau said. “It’s our body’s way of guarding against pain and injury.”

“Being in a chronic state of stress leads the muscles to maintain that tension,” she said. This can cause aches and pains, especially in the neck, shoulders and back, in addition to tension headaches and migraines.

3. Gastrointestinal issues

People dealing with chronic stress may feel like they have a knot in their stomach and could even develop gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome, Fisher said.

“That’s because of a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach” when you are dealing with stress, according to Collins-Facteau. Inflammation, cramping and disruption of gut bacteria are other ways your digestive system can be impacted by chronic stress.

4. Anxiety and depression

It may go without saying that anxiety and depression are two of the big ways that chronic stress can show up.

Research shows that environmental stressors like poverty can contribute to depression. Additionally, other forms of chronic stress, like cancer or heart disease, are also tied to increased rates of mental disorders.

5. Heart problems

“You’ve probably heard stress kills, right?” Collins-Facteau said.

One major risk is that chronic stress can lead to issues like high blood pressure and heart disease, she said, which makes it crucially important to manage your stress as best as possible. 

Stress can create inflammation, which can lead to lower levels of good cholesterol and high blood pressure, both of which can have adverse effects on your heart, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Additionally, the American Heart Association notes that getting good sleep is an important way to maintain or improve your heart health — and, as mentioned above, chronic stress disrupts your rest, making for a vicious cycle.

Dealing with chronic stress is challenging, but there are some ways to address it. 

“The first step is learning to identify what is causing stress and acknowledging that as an opportunity to make changes,” Collins-Facteau said.

This doesn’t mean that you will just immediately eliminate the issue that’s creating chronic stress, since that often isn’t an option. Instead, it means adjusting your lifestyle to better manage stress.

Different people need different things to help keep their stress levels under control, Fisher noted. You may need to relax on the couch to give your body a physical break, or you may find that you need to get out some energy by going for a run or playing basketball.

Managing your stress could also mean making sure you have a balanced breakfast before heading out to your high-stress job or maintaining your support system, Collins-Facteau suggested. 

Practices like mindfulness and meditation can also help you understand what your body needs to deal with the chronic stressor, Fisher noted, whether it’s more relaxation, nature walks or time with friends.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If you feel you need additional support, you can reach out to a mental health professional who is trained to guide you through this, Fisher stressed. If you are experiencing symptoms of chronic stress that are interfering with your daily functioning, it’s important to get support sooner rather than later.

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