What Exactly Is Chronic Stress? Experts Explain How to Identify and Cope With It

Let's be real. Life is hard. Sometimes it's harder than other times. But is it just me or does it feel like it has been a lot harder a lot more often lately, especially for us females? You, too?

If you're with me on this, then raise your glass, and let's toast to the experts we talked with to help us figure out what has us so stressed, what that stress is doing to our bodies and minds, and how we might be able to better cope with it all.

What Is Chronic Stress?

Stress is defined as any uncomfortable "emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological, and behavioral changes," according to the American Psychological Association.

Yes, stress literally changes our bodies' chemistry, how our bodies function, and how we behave.

In small doses, stress can actually be good for us because it might give us energy or help us focus and provide that extra push that we need to get through a tough situation. However, when stressors are especially extreme, the resulting impact on our well-being can be very negative. One way stressors can cross the threshold into physically and/or mentally debilitating is when they become "chronic," which means that they persist over a long period of time.

Causes of Chronic Stress

Dr. Susan Girdler, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Stress and Health Research Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained to POPSUGAR that the tough part about defining chronic stress is that different things stress out different people.

"It's really got a lot to do with the perception, the resources one has to deal with stressors, and the nature and degree of them," Girdler said.

Interpersonal relationship issues, like dysfunctional romantic situations or family responsibilities and conflict, are very common sources of stress for a lot of us, she said.

And of course there are school and work stress, which have become increasingly difficult to escape from in our highly connected lives, as noted by Dr. Ken Yeager, PhD, the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Resilience (STAR) Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, OH.

"Our anxious, overwhelmed, overloaded, tight-deadline, over-extended lives have only become compounded by 24-hour internet access to our work, which wasn't happening 25 years ago," he said.

Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, who is the director of the Program For Research on Anxiety Disorders Among African-Americans (PRADAA) and a professor within the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University, also pointed out that in addition to the stressors we all associate with "normal" life, people of color deal with additional systemic chronic stressors that nonminority individuals might not necessarily have to consider.

"Racism is a chronic stressor, and the people who are experiencing it have no control over that," Neal-Barnett said. "Poverty is also a chronic stressor that we have no control over."

In short, sometimes we don't even realize that our everyday lives are stressing us out so badly. That's why learning to identify the symptoms of chronic stress is key.

How Do You Identify Chronic Stress?

In addition to the fact that so many different things can be stressors to each of us, chronic stress manifests itself differently in different people. It can wreak havoc in our lives socially, physically, and psychologically, according to Yeager.

From a social standpoint, chronic stress can show up as increasing tendencies toward isolation, which is problematic because support from our peer groups is one key way of coping with stress. It's also hard to identify in today's social media age, where "internet friends" can lead to a false sense of security that we have a good friend group, Yeager said.

He asked, "Do you have a friend you could call at 3 a.m. if something terrible happened in your life?" If not, you may have isolated yourself due to chronic stress.

How chronic stress presents itself is a bit more predictable when it comes to physical symptoms, at least from a clinical standpoint.

"There are definitely 'automatic' responses to stress, some of which are hardwired into us, like our flight-or-fight response, our cortisol response, or immune system response," Girdler said. One major problem with our physical reactions to chronic stress is that these automatic stress responses were meant to help us deal with short-term, very intense stressors, like fighting or fleeing from predators.

"But our stressors now are mostly psychological, as we're sitting in front of our computers or having an interpersonal conflict that requires no physical exertion at all," she said. "And yet we mount the same responses, like increased blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol production."

When these systems are continually being activated over a prolonged (or chronic) period of time, it can lead to excessive "wear and tear" that can contribute to long-term physical health issues, like heart disease, kidney disease, and immune system deficiencies, as well as mental health issues.

But just because things like elevated heart rate or an increase in the release of cortisol are happening inside our bodies doesn't necessarily mean we're all aware those physical reactions to chronic stress are taking place.

Of course, some physical reactions are more obvious, like headache, sleep disturbances, jaw grinding, heartburn, or bowel problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. But it's also entirely possible that you didn't know until right now that these issues are, in fact, potential manifestations of chronic stress.

The same can be said for resulting emotional and mental manifestations of chronic stress. For example, anxiety and depression are ways in which chronic stress manifests itself psychologically. "Depression stems from feeling isolated and worrying over the past, and anxiety results from worrying over the future," Yeager said.

Historically, black people have been thought to experience depression and anxiety at lower rates than white people, but when diagnosed with these mental health issues, black people have been found to experience them more intensely, Neal-Barnett said.

However, a recent study published by the Journal of Society For Social Work and Research in October 2017 suggested that perhaps more black people are experiencing mental health issues like depression than may have previously been thought. Neal-Barnett said this was being missed because depression diagnoses were being measured by what she called "white standards."

"We were missing it because we weren't asking the right questions," Neal-Barnett added. "And they didn't realize it either because they were just thinking, 'This is the way I'm supposed to feel,' because they had felt that way for so long, they didn't know they were supposed to feel any differently."

Other psychological indicators of chronic stress include irritability, "burn out," lack of interest, and disengagement, Girdler added. "We can measure 'burnout' by emotional exhaustion," Yeager said. He described this as feeling like at the end of the day, you simply don't have any energy left to take care of yourself, not even to cook yourself a good meal.

What Can We Do About It?

A large part of coping with chronic stress is changing the way we think about it, Yeager said. "You might not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you process it," he said.

According to Yeager, part of that is building resiliency to negative thinking. We can do this by identifying three positive things in our lives every day and then noting the "why, how, and who" associated with those good things, which will help us to combat the vicious cycle of negativity.

"Self-care is also important," he said. "Set aside time to disconnect, take a walk, be with yourself, and hear yourself." He recommended spending a bit of time each day completely without technology, including music.

When we take time to listen to ourselves, he said, we often find ways of coping with chronic stress that are very simple. "Find whatever makes time fly and do it," he said, adding that it's important to "find people you like to be around, and be around them."

Girdler echoed the sentiment that balance is key. "We've got to find those 'happy places' for us, those things that we find stress-reducing, and make sure we 'schedule' them into our lives," she said. "We have to be very intentional about that or it won't happen."

And if there are things in our lives that we perceive as chronic stressors that we can alleviate, we should really do that, she said. But most of the time, we simply are not in that position.

"The best strategy for dealing with chronic stress that you cannot change is to get guidance from a mental health professional on developing coping skills," Girdler said. "And then make sure that every day is filled with something you do for yourself or someone you can spend time with that makes you feel happy, loved, and secure."

Yeager also mentioned that part of what he's seen as a contributing factor to chronic stress is that "most of us are isolated from our families living many states away, with no real support," so finding other kinds of community where we can is important.

On that same note, Neal-Barnett has created what she calls "sister circles" for black women and girls in the Kent, OH, area, to come together and support one another as they cope with chronic stress in their lives.

Neal-Barnett added that physical activity alone can have incredible benefits when it comes to coping with the symptoms of chronic stress, along with prayer and meditation.

"And what we eat is important, too," she said. "Caffeine can make you more anxious."

Yeager believes that we're all living under chronic stress and that while we'll never be able to eliminate it completely, we can manage its symptoms.

Knowing that is half the battle.

Note that the topics discussed here are different than those related to a diagnosis of Chronic Stress Disorder, which is an age-dependent psychiatric diagnosis characterized by severe psychological impairment. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of this condition, you should seek the help of a mental professional.