What is chronic stress?

I’m sure you get a feeling in your body when thinking about chronic stress. You know what it feels like, but what is it exactly? To better understand stress and its effect on the body, first we must understand something about our nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is in charge of all of the automatic functions of our body, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sleep, digestion, and hormonal regulation. It is located in the brain stem and spinal cord.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic portion is sometimes thought of as the “fight or flight” system, but I like to simply think about it as the more active, quick response portion of the autonomic system. The parasympathetic portion can be thought of as the “rest and digest” system.

In our busy, fast-paced world, we spend a lot of time stimulating our sympathetic nervous system. We never shut it off, which takes us out of the much-needed parasympathetic state, where we can rest and recover our energy.

The effects of chronic stress

Chronic stress is when “the stress response becomes more damaging than the stressor itself,” says Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. Sapolsky is featured in a 2008 National Geographic special called “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” You can watch this short intro video to get a good explanation of the sympathetic nervous system. Thefull, hour-long show is quite interesting as well, and is accessible on YouTube.

Over time, sustained stress levels lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia, increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, a compromised immune system, weight gain, digestive disorders, increased pain, headaches, reproductive issues, addiction, and premature aging. It’s not a pretty picture. What can you do?

Stress management 

It is becoming more and more difficult to manage chronic stress, but here are some general guidelines:

Do for yourself

  • Get enough rest and sleep
  • Exercise
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Avoid stimulants, sugar and processed food
  • Moderate screen time
  • Get acupuncture and/or massage

Do for others

  • Connect with others
  • Care for others
  • Take part in community

Just be

  • Meditate
  • Spend time in nature
  • Be positive
  • Know your purpose

One last thing to review is the Red Clover Clinic Newsletter article from last fall “Avoiding the straw that broke the camel’s back,” which discusses the use of adaptogenic herbs to help manage chronic stress.