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  • Writer's pictureDr. David Della Morte Canosci

THE IMPACT OF CHRONIC STRESS ON PHYSICAL HEALTH

Stress is a natural physiological response that our bodies experience in various situations. While stress can sometimes provide the motivation to react and perform better, prolonged and unmanaged stress can have detrimental effects on our health. It can lead to a range of physical symptoms and worsen existing health conditions. In this article, we will explore the different ways in which chronic stress can impact our physical well-being.

donna stesa in relax a Palazzo Fiuggi

UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF STRESS ON HEALTH

When stress becomes intense, long-lasting, or unmanaged, it can manifest in a variety of physical symptoms. These symptoms may include headaches, stomach discomfort, increased blood pressure, chest pain, and sleep disturbances. Numerous studies have also shown that stress can exacerbate existing symptoms or conditions.

Additionally, chronic stress can lead individuals to seek relief through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, or drug use. While these substances may provide temporary relaxation, they actually maintain the body in a stressed state, failing to provide the true relaxation it needs.


RECOGNIZING THE SYMPTOMS OF STRESS

The symptoms of chronic stress can affect various aspects of an individual's life, including their health, behavior, and emotions. As stress management varies from person to person, the symptoms can also differ. Emotionally, stress can manifest as agitation, frustration, rapid mood swings, feelings of being overwhelmed, difficulty relaxing, low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, and constant worry. Individuals may also tend to avoid social interactions.

Common physical symptoms of stress include fatigue, stomach issues like diarrhea, nausea, or constipation, headaches, muscle tension and pain, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent colds, decreased libido, nervousness, restlessness, ringing in the ears, cold hands and feet, increased sweating, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, teeth grinding, and more.


THE PHASES OF CHRONIC DISTRESS

Chronic distress, which refers to long-term stress, often progresses through distinct phases, each marked by specific symptoms and consequences. It is important to understand these phases to recognize and address chronic stress effectively.


PHASE 1: CHRONIC FATIGUE

In this initial phase, individuals may experience daily fatigue, both physically and mentally. They may find it challenging to get out of bed in the morning and rely on stimulants like coffee or tea to wake up. Throughout the day, they may continue seeking caffeine for a boost. As the afternoon or evening approaches, a sense of tiredness prevails, and the desire to rest becomes overwhelming. At this point, some individuals may turn to alcohol as a means of relaxation, only to find themselves feeling more disoriented. Nighttime sleep becomes insufficient and unrestful, gradually leading to a complete lack of energy.


PHASE 2: INTERPERSONAL PROBLEMS AND SELF-ISOLATION

In the second phase, individuals start experiencing difficulties in their relationships with others. They become suspicious and hostile, often ready to engage in arguments. The ability to control their emotions diminishes daily, while their readiness to become angry over trivial or imaginary matters increases. As interpersonal relationships deteriorate, the opportunities for gratification and comfort from healthy connections diminish. Individuals gradually reduce their interactions with others, neglecting both close friendships and family members. In some cases, even spouses may become strangers, despite sharing the same living space. The tendency to withdraw and isolate oneself grows rapidly, along with the overwhelming fatigue that leaves just enough strength to endure workdays. Every minor difficulty becomes an unsolvable problem.


PHASE 3: EMOTIONAL TURMOIL

In the third phase, the irritability present in the previous phase persists, but the aggression becomes more internalized, affecting the entire body. Individuals feel insecure, confused, and unable to make decisions or choices. Social relationships continue to deteriorate, and the inability to control emotions becomes a significant and concerning issue. There is a constant struggle to achieve emotional stability, but depression and unwarranted bursts of excitement become an alternating reality. This emotional instability significantly hampers work efficiency, resulting in inconsistent performance quality, depending on mood fluctuations. Psychological exhaustion takes hold, leading to a complete loss of control over one's life, which now appears purposeless and governed by chance. Even the few remaining relationships fade, exacerbating the sense of dissatisfaction.


PHASE 4: CHRONIC PAIN

In the fourth phase, the body's alarm system activates, signaling the need to escape the prolonged state of stress and chronic anxiety. The first physical symptom is muscle stiffness, particularly in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and facial areas. It is not uncommon to clench the jaw or grind teeth during sleep (bruxism), as if attempting to release inner tension, risking further misalignment of dental arches or temporomandibular joint disorders that affect posture and the musculoskeletal system. Attempts to rest, such as sleeping in on weekends after a long and challenging week, often result in migraines or tension headaches. These headaches occur due to the sudden relaxation of muscles and the subsequent rapid return of normal blood flow to the head after days of forced constriction.


PHASE 5: CHRONIC EXHAUSTION AND PHYSICAL ILLNESS

In the final phase, individuals transition from a long period of stress resistance to a chronic state of exhaustion, rendering them "burned out." The accumulated invisible damage in the body manifests as specific illnesses, largely facilitated by the progressive weakening of the immune system. Common physical ailments associated with chronic stress include colds, flu, ulcers, colitis, asthma, hypertension, various cardiovascular conditions, premature aging, autoimmune diseases, and more. Furthermore, even short periods of relaxation, such as brief vacations, can trigger rapid and potentially catastrophic hormonal changes in the body.


THE IMPORTANCE OF MANAGING CHRONIC STRESS

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Given the profound impact of chronic stress on physical health, it is crucial to develop effective stress management strategies. While it may be challenging to eliminate the source of stress entirely, individuals can work towards equipping themselves with the necessary resources to handle stress better. This may involve adopting relaxation techniques, practicing mindfulness, engaging in regular exercise and physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, prioritizing self-care, seeking support from loved ones or professionals, and cultivating a positive mindset.


CONCLUSION

Chronic stress can have severe consequences on our physical well-being, affecting various aspects of our health and daily lives. Recognizing the symptoms and phases of chronic distress is essential for early intervention and effective stress management. By prioritizing self-care and implementing stress reduction strategies, individuals can protect their physical health and overall well-being. Remember, managing chronic stress is a journey that requires patience, self-awareness, and the willingness to make positive changes in one's life.



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