Everything You Need to Know About Chronic Stress — And How To Fight Back
Pop quiz: How do you feel right now? Chances are, the word "stressed!" floated across your thinking.
Stress gets a bad rap, but experts say it's neither good nor bad. In the most basic terms, "stress is a physical response to any challenge or threat," says clinical psychologist and author Erin Olivo, Ph.D., MDPH. "It's totally normal." And it's often even beneficial.
But today's 24/7, always-on culture is creating chronic stress that people just can't shake, which can harm your health, says Olivo. When you're always in fight-or-flight mode, a stress response that goes on for too long ramps up disease-causing inflammation and leads to wear and tear on your body. Olivo rattles off all the baddies associated with prolonged stress: "It's hard on your heart, it creates heart disease, you start getting chronic muscle tension and pain." In fact, one-third of all visits to internal medicine doctors can be traced back to stress-induced illness.
Ultimately, chronic stress can set off a chain reaction of health effects, especially if left ignored. Here's how to watch for the subtle warning signs—and learn a few self-care hacks that can help you deal.
This is your body on stress.
Your stressed body: Stress sends a signal to redirect blood flow from your gut and sends it to extremities, says Olivo. Your blood pressure rises, as does the level of cortisol coursing through your bloodstream. In cave-man times, that would help you run faster and get stronger in an emergency. Today, chronic stress might manifest itself in the form of stomach or pain issues.
But if stress is prolonged, over time, your adrenals can become fatigued and cortisol levels may actually become depleted. Some of these signs include low blood pressure, low libido, dizziness, and exhaustion. Adaptogenic herbs and some B vitamins, like the ones found in Thorne's Stress B-Complex, can help regulate cortisol levels. Specifically, this stress-managing formula includes extra vitamin B5 for adrenal support—plus, the supplement stands out for containing some B vitamins in their active form for better absorption.
Your stressed mood: "In general, we feel more anxious and more negative when we are stressed," says Olivo. "And over time, it can create an anxiety or a mood disorder." Managing your stress now can help prevent more serious mental health issues down the road. If you find yourself depressed or down most of the day for two weeks, don't hesitate to see your doctor.
Your stressed behavior: Stress can result in multiple unhealthy behaviors—such as overeating (hello, junk food!), skipping meals, or self-medicating with alcohol, smoking, or drugs. "Engaging in these things can create their own problems," warns Olivo.
How to get a handle on stress.
The first step is to recognize when you are feeling stressed out. "Identify it: This is how I'm feeling, and I need to do something about it," Olivo tells her patients. Consider taking Thorne's at-home Stress Test to learn about your adrenal health and stress response—and get a personalized health plan, including recommendations on diet and lifestyle changes, to help you stay in balance.
Because stress is a physiological response, Olivo suggests a daily relaxation practice, such as meditation or yoga. It can be as simple as stopping every hour to take 10 full breaths and relax your muscles.
If you're under intense pressure and feel warm, or your heart starts pounding, she recommends applying something cool and wet on your forehead or splashing cold water on your face. Next, hold your breath for as long as you can, then resume normal breathing. This sets off your "diving reflex"—the natural set of reflexes that are activated when your face is cooled and you hold your breath, like when you submerge yourself in water. It's basically the opposite of the stress response: Your heart rate slows way down, instantly quieting your anxiety.
Olivo also emphasizes the importance of time management (don't pack too much into a day, and get comfortable saying "no") and of a healthy diet and regular exercise. "You want your body to be at its healthiest, so when we have stress, we can respond in the healthiest way."