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  • Writer's pictureJenni Schierman

How Does Chronic Stress Affect Your Health and What Can You Do About It?


I didn't realize I was suffering from burnout until it was too late. Like many of the clients I now see as a coach, I was working far too many hours, was not prioritizing myself, and my days and weeks had no balance. I was not a coach at the time and unfortunately did not have the knowledge I have now about how my choices could potentially impact me long term. My burnout journey would last several years from the time it was clear what was happening until I really started to recover. During this time I faced several health related issues and my body was screaming at me to slow down. In reality it had been asking politely for quite some time but I kept ignoring the signals. I'm very lucky to have walked away with the handful of issues I did. Although at the time I will tell you they were debilitating and I did not feel particularly lucky.


I say I did not have the knowledge I have now. Let's be honest, often knowledge is not enough to prevent burnout either. Most of us know we should get 7-9 hours (or more) of sleep. Most of us know we should be drinking 2L of water, or more, a day. It's also probably not a secret that we should be getting regular physical activity. Despite this seemingly common knowledge, we regularly act against our own better interests. We sit for long periods of time without breaks. We drink coffee or soda, sometimes tea, and nearly no water. We forgo early bedtimes and routines in favor of one more episode on Netflix or mindless scrolling because we need some "me" time after an already packed day.


Always On

Often I hear clients describe that they feel like they are in a constant state of "on". Sometimes it can feel like you are unable to relax, to switch off, even at the end of the day when you are desperately trying to go to sleep. This can then contribute to poor sleep and waking up tired the next day. Often this leads to a dependency on caffeine to make it through the day, and then the cycle repeats.


What causes this feeling? It's a combination of things but to put it simply, it starts in an area of your brain you may have heard of called the amygdala. This area is responsible for emotional processing and determines if what you are "telling" it (sights/sounds) are indeed a threat. Once it has determined that you are indeed in under threat of some kind, your hypothalamus takes over as the "command center" for the rest of your body. It will control your breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat etc. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands will release epinephrine aka adrenaline.


These are all normal responses to perceived or real threat. When we were being chased on a daily basis by bears or tigers this was especially helpful as it gave us the boost we needed to hopefully escape and not be eaten. In more recent days, we aren't being chased by bears as often but the fight/flight/freeze response is still alive and usually helping us out. However, if we remain in this state for too long and don't have any activation of the second part of the response which is like a "gas pedal" where our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in allowing us to relax, we can start to experience the effects of chronic stress.


Health Impacts of Chronic Stress

There are a number of ways in which chronic stress can have lasting impacts but let's look at the more common ones I see among clients and some that I see in connections online. In addition to coaching with Hintsa and my own private clients, I also do some consulting. This gives me a rather large, diverse pool of people to give examples from and yet there are many commonalities when it comes to stress. I'll also include links from recent research in case you want to explore this further.


Endocrine:

While it is our endocrine system, specifically the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis that is creating the loop of responses and hormones responsible for fight/flight/freeze response we talked about earlier, too much of a good thing can in fact lead to issues. Cortisol is important when it comes to our immune system and reducing inflammation. Unfortunately, chronic stress can sometimes impact communication pathways between the HPA axis and the immune system. This can result in future health issues such as: chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, depression, and immune disorders just to name a few.


Male Reproductive Function:

Chronic stress can impact the production of testosterone, which can impact desire and libido. Over time it could even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. "Researchers have found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility (ability to swim) and a lower percentage of sperm of normal morphology (size and shape), compared with men who did not experience any stressful life events."


Female Reproductive System:

Women's hormones and reproductive health can be impacted in several ways.

1. Menstrual Cycle Disruption: Chronic stress can impact the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle leading to irregular or missed periods.

2. Fertility Issues: This could be caused by ovulation disruption due to excess cortisol, skipping ovulation, or general hormonal imbalances due to chronic stress.

3. Hormone Therapy: Cortisol can impact the efficacy of hormone therapy. This can lead to the continued experience of symptoms while still taking the prescribed dosage.


Cardiovascular:

There is a connection between stress and potential long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels. "The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke." It is also thought that how a person responds to stress can even impact their cholesterol levels. Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide.


Muskuloskeletal:

When we experience a stressful moment we may tense up in anticipation of the thing that is about to occur. Our muscles become tight, breathing might be a bit more shallow, and it can be hard to relax fully until the moment has passed. When we are chronically stressed, it becomes challenging to relax those muscles and can lead to a host of issues. Headaches due to neck/shoulder tension are common.


Gastrointestinal:

Stress can impact your gut bacteria which can lead to experiencing pain, bloating or nausea. If stress is severe enough, some people can even experience vomiting as a result. Stress can also impact swallowing and digestion. "Stress especially affects people with chronic bowel disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome. This may be due to the gut nerves being more sensitive, changes in gut microbiota, changes in how quickly food moves through the gut, and/or changes in gut immune responses."


Solutions For The Chronically Stressed

So, we've talked about the idea that you may be experiencing chronic stress including impacts on your body and health over time, but what can you do? Because at some point, you may face burnout or health implications as a result and if you can prevent that by starting to improve your level of stress, great!


In the following points I'll discuss several lifestyle changes that you may want to consider that have evidence of reducing the impacts of stress on the body. Additionally, I will link to an upcoming masterclass you can attend hosted by leading psychologists and coaches at Hintsa that are discussing the topic of Resilience.


  1. Regular "moderate" physical activity: Although physical activity can be considered a stressor in itself, engaging in moderate, regular physical activity has shown in studies to reduce the impacts of other stressors. If you are currently sedentary you may want to enlist the help of a coach to determine what is an appropriate starting point for you. Keep in mind a little bit is better than nothing if your are just starting out. A program that is sustainable in the long run is important. Is there something you enjoy doing? Not every person has to go to the gym to be active and fit.

  2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is great because there are so many different types of activities that fall under this umbrella that there is sure to be something for everyone. Additionally, there are countless studies and meta analysis showing the positive impacts of mindfulness based interventions in decreasing the instance of burnout and improving overall wellbeing. Some examples of mindfulness I especially like to use with clients are:

    1. Journaling: this can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. I find a lot of clients benefit from a "brain dump" exercise. To do this you can use a plain notepad. The idea is to have a set time (5 min is great) where you just "dump" everything that is in your head on to the page. Ideally this is taking place at the same time each day. Before bed or as part of a quiet morning is a great place for this. Over time this can help with those circular thoughts.

    2. Breathing: because it is free and can be used anywhere without needing special tools, breathing exercises are a great resource. I like to use a breathing exercise where you breath in for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 8. Repeat 2-3x and you should feel yourself becoming calmer. Some people have trouble "feeling" this calm if they try this in a more activated state for the first time. If this occurs, try it again when you are already calm, see if you get the feeling, then it should be easier the next time.

    3. Hintsa Masterclass - Resilience Ready: This is coming up on June 4, at 3-4pm CET and I am sure there will be plenty of helpful tips on how to improve resilience while sustaining performance. If you are a leader I would encourage you to register. Click here for more info and to sign up.


Final Thoughts

Stress is a natural part of life and we all experience it. The problem comes when stress becomes chronic and we lack the daily balance to allow our body to apply the "brakes" to let our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in allowing us to relax. We can absolutely implement lifestyle changes to help mitigate the impacts of chronic stress long term and avoid burnout and health issues that may be associated.


As always, please reach out by clicking the link below if you want to learn more about this topic, or if you are interested in coaching, webinars or workshop solutions for your team/company/employer.



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