Protecting yourself from the effects of chronic stress

The link between mental and physical health is well established and there is a wealth of evidence to show that long-term stress, when left unaddressed, can contribute to serious illness. This article explores the nature of stress, the symptoms and illnesses associated with stress, and how it can be managed.


What is stress?

Stress is a feeling of pressure due to a situation or event and is a completely normal part of life. Life by its very nature is full of highs and lows and there are numerous times when we are all faced with challenging situations that create in us that sense of pressure and lack of control, particularly events that bring with them significant change. Bereavement, divorce, injury/illness, retirement, pregnancy, and financial difficulties, are just some of the many life events that can present real difficulties in navigating the challenges they present. However, situations that may seem minor in comparison can still cause our bodies and minds to react in similar ways. Struggles at work and juggling family life may not be significant life events but can cause feelings of stress nonetheless.

Stress can also be a positive thing, improving our performance through increased motivation and focus. Consider job interviews, competing in events, and exams/tests, all of which require an element of stress in order to ensure we are performing at our very best. But when the level of stress tips over into an unhealthy place and when it is sustained over a period of time, there is a risk of some very serious health conditions developing.

The stress response

The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism that protects us from a threat by firing our bodies into action. Adrenalin and cortisol are released, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises and the functioning of other organs is altered to prepare the body to work as efficiently as possible. All of this is to prepare the body to react as quickly as possible to the life-threatening situation and maximise our chances of surviving it- a very helpful and fascinating function of the brain! Unfortunately, this system can still be triggered into action in response to everyday, non-life-threatening stressors, resulting in a helpful function of the brain designed to prolong our survival actually becoming very unhelpful. 

Chronic stress

Chronic stress can be defined as a long-term, constant feeling of stress affecting both body and mind. The stress response is being triggered several times a day, keeping us in a constant state of alert and arousal and with a lack of time for the brain to tell all of these systems that they can relax again. Given that the physiological changes can take 20-60mins to return to normal, the next stressor can come along before the body has had time to recover. When you consider the changes that take place in the body listed above, it is clear how damaging these changes could be over an extended period of time, and so the link between chronic stress and serious illness makes sense.

The following list is not exhaustive but highlights some of the conditions that can be caused or made worse by chronic stress:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • IBS and other gastrointestinal diseases
  • Insomnia
  • Heart disease, high blood pressure, and heart attacks
  • Common cold
  • Migraines
  • Lower back pain
  • Auto-immune disorders
  • Diabetes

Symptoms of chronic stress 

With so many complications linked to chronic stress, it is vital that we are aware of the possible indicators, some of which we may not necessarily recognise as symptoms of stress. Again, the following lists are not exhaustive but will give you an idea of the types of symptoms to look out for.

Physical symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach cramps 
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Lack of energy

Emotional symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sensitivity
  • Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Forgetfulness
  • Constant worrying

Behavioural symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Nail-biting
  • Fidgeting
  • Lack of self-care
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Teeth clenching or grinding
  • Avoidance

Managing stress

The ability to manage stress is crucial in ensuring that we are not overwhelmed and the body is not kept in a state of high alert. Being self-aware and using effective coping strategies to deal with negative feelings can help initiate the body’s relaxation response and get those systems back to normal. 

Deep, slow, and steady breathing is extremely helpful in calming the mind and slowing everything down. It is incredibly convenient and can be done anytime and anywhere, including in the moment of a stressful event. There are a number of specific breathing exercises that you can explore and practice, as well as specific apps that can support you. You may want to explore taking it a step further through mediation and mindfulness, which can help relax the body and mind and focus attention away from the stressor. Again, there are many apps and online resources to guide you.

The importance of exercise for managing stress is well known. Exercise releases endorphins, which are a feel-good hormone that also relieves pain naturally. Depending on the type of exercise, the physical actions can become a form of mediation, where the focus is deflected from the stressor and concentrated on the rhythmic movement of the body. Exercise can help increase energy, improve confidence, aid sleep and counteract the negative effects of stress.

Building self-care into our busy lives is vital. Self-care is not anything specific and does not have to involve facials and massages, it is quite simply anything needed to prioritise yourself and your own well-being. It might be going for a walk, reading a book, or simply saying no to a social event. Taking time for ourselves can be easier said than done, particularly when we have responsibilities for others in our families and at work, but we all need to relax and replenish if we are going to have the energy needed to be at our best for others; the risks to our health are too great if we don’t.

Hypnotherapy for stress

Part of our ability to manage stress is based on our thinking about a particular situation, which is rooted in the subconscious. Unhelpful and negative thought patterns can impact the perception of our ability to cope with any given event. Psychologists refer to automatic thoughts as those that can’t be directly controlled because they are the result of beliefs about ourselves and the world. Self-criticism, feeling the world is against you, disappointment in yourself, and feelings of guilt and shame can all make our perception of life’s stressors far worse. These negative beliefs lead to negative automatic thoughts, but hypnotherapy can change these beliefs to positive ones, leading to positive automatic thoughts. The subconscious can be trained to develop healthy coping strategies and promote calmness in challenging situations. 

With the obvious risks to physical health that can arise from unmanaged stress, it is crucial that we are able to find moments of calm and establish effective strategies for coping with life’s challenges.

“You may not be able to control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

-Maya Angelou

A hypnotherapy session by its very nature is a relaxing and soothing experience. Clients who attend their appointment feeling tense and stressed will often comment on how calm and relaxed they feel, both physically and emotionally, after a session. I invite you to try it for yourself. You can contact me via my profile below. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, NG2 7PL
Written by Michaela Addis, BSc (Hons), Adv Dip CP, Dip Hyp, GMBPsS, MHS
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, NG2 7PL

Michaela is a hypnotherapist based in Nottingham, specialising in confidence, stress and anxiety.

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