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Chronic stress: causes, symptoms and treatment

Chronic stress: causes, symptoms and treatment

June 17, 2024

Stress is a widespread phenomenon today . The causes that cause the appearance of its symptoms are many, however, the lifestyle and culture of Western societies contribute significantly to the emergence of this affectation.

There are different types of stress: acute stress, chronic stress, post-traumatic stress, etc. If you want to know more about the different kinds of stress, you can visit our article: "Types of stress and its triggers".

Chronic stress and acute stress

It is important to differentiate between acute stress and chronic stress . Acute stress occurs at specific moments and temporarily, in response to the experimentation of one or more highly stressful events, and as a result the person suffers from anxiety. Although stress can be positive in small doses, in high doses can affect our mental and physical health: muscle aches, headaches, exhaustion, gastric problems, tachycardia, etc.

Stress, however, can also be chronic, which is a more damaging way to experience this condition. When stress lasts over time , there is a physical, emotional or mental exhaustion that has consequences on the self-esteem and health of the affected person, causing even severe depression. Either because the person lives in a hostile environment in times of war, is unable to pay a mortgage debt, suffers burn syndrome at work or is not able to face divorce, the result is devastating and has a strong impact on your emotional and general well-being.


Chronic stress has a particular characteristic that differentiates it from other types of stress. And it is that the event or stressor is manifested again and again, that is, that the stressor is not temporary and remains unchanged over time .

For example, a university student may experience a stressful situation when exams are approaching and he / she realizes that he / she has allowed time to pass this course. During a month he tries to study everything he should have studied during the year, but he does not have enough time or resources to pass the subject. Once the exam period is over, that stressful event will disappear, and the student will be able to better plan and manage his time for the next course. The student has experienced a situation of acute stress.

An example of chronic stress

The same thing does not happen in chronic stress, because the stressful event occurs again and again, repeatedly over time. It may happen that you feel burned at work because your superior's leadership style is causing you an anguished situation day in and day out , because his boss does not take into account his potential, criticizes him constantly and, by not giving him clear and concrete orders, is causing ambiguity and role conflict.

It can also happen that an individual is involved in a mortgage debt that forces him to pay an amount that can not cope. Months pass and he is increasingly in debt, which is causing anxiety, despair, insomnia, severe depression and, in addition, he sees no way out. Both cases are examples of chronic stress.

As you see, the causes can be varied, however, the frequency of presentation of the stressor is what causes the harmful consequences for mental health. Now, it must be clear that, on occasion, It is not the stressful event itself that causes stress, but how we interpret this event and how we face it . Our beliefs and our resources are very important. Therefore, what for one person can be stressful, for another it is not.

Symptoms of chronic stress

The person with chronic stress, unlike the one who suffers acute stress, often is not aware of what is happening to him, because he has become accustomed to this situation despite not having overcome it. This can cause a very harmful effect, which is known as learned helplessness (click here to learn more). Learned helplessness seriously hinders the search for help and treatment.

So it is important to pay attention to your physical and psychological symptoms to be able to get out of this situation. Generally, chronic stress manifests itself in different ways:

  • Diseases of the digestive system, skin diseases and heart problems.
  • Feelings of insecurity and the feeling of learned helplessness.
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional fatigue
  • Alcohol or substance abuse

These symptoms and many others not only affect the person, but also their immediate environment , making difficult, on many occasions, healthy interpersonal relationships with your family or your partner.

Burnout or chronic stress at work

One of the most frequent types of chronic stress is burnout or burn syndrome , which occurs in the workplace and which, in recent years, has worsened in many professions due to the crisis and cuts in personnel.

The causes of burnout can be diverse, and have their origin both in the expectations of employees or their ability to cope with the problem , as in different factors that depend purely and exclusively on the practices of the company or the organization. For example: leadership styles, failure in selection processes or role overload.

Studies in this line of research indicate that burnout manifests as follows:

  • Wear and emotional exhaustion : fatigue and mental fatigue.
  • Depersonalization : negative attitudes toward the company and work, for example, irritability or loss of motivation.
  • Lack of personal and professional fulfillment : negative effect on personal self-esteem, frustrated expectations and stress manifestations at a physiological, cognitive and behavioral level.
  • You can go deeper into this topic in our article: "Burnout (burn syndrome): how to detect it and take action"

Treatment of chronic stress

Since the first research on stress, carried out by Hans Selye, in the 50s, many experts have been contributing more and more knowledge about what it is, how it works and what is the best way to treat this condition. One of the most used theories is the demand-control-social support model of Karasek and Johnson (1986), which works especially well for work-related stress.

From this model it is understood that The source of stress is in the mismatch between existing demands and the control that the person has to face these demands. In other words, what determines the appearance of stress is the interaction between the person and the stressful situation. Therefore, the problem it can be attacked in two ways : changing or avoiding the stressful event or, conversely, changing the way the person perceives and confronts this situation.

Go to the psychologist to overcome stress

Obviously, the best way to overcome chronic stress is eradicating the causative factor, although this is not always possible. It may be an alternative to leave work or divorce when the problem is in our employment or relationship with our partner, but what about a long-term unemployed or a member of a family without economic resources that is unable to pay their debt ?

These cases require professional psychological help, because this situation can pose serious problems in the future if this phenomenon is not adequately combated. In other words, it is necessary to seek treatment and learn practical tools to deal with this negative situation. The need to go to a clinical psychologist can be key to learning to manage the emotions and negative feelings associated with stress.

In the best of cases, a radical change in lifestyle will suffice, such as taking care of food, practicing physical exercise on a regular basis, dedicating time to leisure and finding moments for relaxation. You can go deeper into these tips and many more in our article: "10 essential tips to reduce stress".

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