My friend, "Laura," doesn't remember the last time she's cooked a meal for her family at home. Between her job, college classes, her kids' activities, and her volunteer work, there simply isn't enough time for meal preparation. Instead, they grab fast food while on the road to their next activity.
In the mornings, Laura can often be found sipping her large cup of coffee, trying to compensate for her lack of sleep. "Night time is the only time I can do what I want, to unwind!" Laura explains, laughing.
Sadly, Laura's situation seems to be more common than not. So many of us are too stressed, too busy, and not meeting our basic needs. We accumulate to-do lists that leave no time for caring for ourselves, and we overbook ourselves to the point of exhaustion.
This week we will be looking at the effects of chronic stress, the causes of it, and possible solutions. Chronic stress is a problem that everyone needs to address, because its effects can be seen in the obesity epidemic, the increase in heart disease, and even the increase in depression and other mental health issues.
Here are some ways that chronic stress is killing us:
1. Chronic stress can cause or worsen physical conditions.
According to the article, "The Effects of of Stress on Your Body," published on WebMD, 75%-90% of all visits to doctors are due to stress-related illnesses. Stress itself can cause headaches, stomach pain, insomnia, and even chest pain.
Additionally, the article states that chronic stress can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure and type II diabetes. Being chronically stressed is literally making us sick.
2. Chronic stress can cause emotional disorders.
In addition to causing physical issues, the article on WebMD states that chronic stress can cause or contribute to depression and anxiety. It goes on to further explain that 50% of all emotional disorders are caused by chronic stress.
Many times people under chronic stress also turn to addictive behaviors in an effort to find relief, and this can worsen any experience of anxiety or depression. It becomes a spiral--we feel stressed, so we try to escape through addictive behaviors. The addictive behaviors ultimately increase the stress, which leads us to feel depressed or anxious. Because we feel depressed or anxious, we try to escape through addictive behaviors.
3. Chronic stress can cause weight gain.
According to the article, "Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk," published by the Mayo Clinic, stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, and chronic stress causes stress hormones to constantly be released. These stress hormones--especially cortisol--causes weight gain. Chronic stress can lead to weight gain around the stomach area, which is particularly harmful and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Overeating is also a common addictive behavior, so chronic stress is a double-edged sword. First, we seek to find relief through overeating, and then we are more likely to gain weight as a result of the stress hormones. Losing weight while under unmanaged chronic stress can be nearly impossible.
4. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system.
According to the Mayo Clinic's article, cortisol alters the immune system, to prepare your body for a short-term, emergency situation. When the body is constantly in a state of fight-or-flight, however, the immune system will remain weakened long-term.
For this reason, chronic stress causes us to be more likely to get sick, and it can increase the amount of time that we are sick. Our bodies become unable to fight off colds and other illnesses that normally would not cause us to become ill. Because we are not able to slow down and rest on our own, our bodies force us to do this by becoming sick.
5. Chronic stress causes cognitive issues.
Being chronically stressed often leads to a lack of sleep, and this can cause your brain to function less efficiently. According to the article, "16 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body," published on Healthline, when a person does not get adequate sleep, the brain is not able to repair itself and becomes over-exhausted. The result is that we are not able to concentrate and learn new things as easily as we could if we got enough sleep.
The article also states that a lack of sleep can impair both long and short-term memory. It can limit creativity and problem-solving. It also becomes more difficult to regulate emotions, so people who are chronically tired may be more prone to mood swings.
6. Chronic stress can increase your risk of injury.
Healthline's article warns of a rather frightening consequence of sleep deprivation: microsleep. Microsleep occurs when a person falls asleep for a few seconds but is unaware of it. Microsleep is something that a person can not control, and it can happen at any time. It is especially dangerous while driving.
Microsleep can increase our risk of falls and injuries as well. When we are sleep-deprived, we are more likely to trip, bump into things, or have other injuries.
7. Chronic stress can cause genetic damage.
According to the article, "8 Scary Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation," published on the Huffington Post, studies have found over 700 genetic changes that occur after a week of inadequate sleep. These changes can increase a person's risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and bone loss.
The most frightening finding is that a 2010 study found that people who sleep less than 6.5-7.5 hours per night are more likely to die from any cause. Chronic stress shortens a person's life span. It is time that we treated this issue with the seriousness it deserves and learn to make ourselves a priority!
For help in managing chronic stress and making yourself a priority, consider a low-cost and confidential e-mail, chat, or video session.