There is a difference between everyday stress and chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), "everyday stressors ... can be managed with healthy stress management behaviors." However, when stress lasts for a prolonged period of time it becomes chronic and can lead to serious health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, insomnia, obesity and more. Learning where chronic stress comes from can help you recognize and understand associated problems, as well as decide when medical intervention might be needed.
Six Sources of Chronic Stress
According to the APA, "chronic stress can occur in response to everyday stressors that are ignored or poorly managed, as well as exposure to traumatic events." Dealing with a sudden event that affects many aspects of your life for a long time -such as job loss or discovering marital infidelity- can lead to chronic stress, as can any situation you find stressful that affects you over a period of time. Examples of chronic sources of stress include:
1. Financial Stress
Living with financial struggles can be a significant source of chronic stress according to Laura Choi, research associate with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. When you are unable to meet financial obligations, it can seem like stress is everywhere; when the phone rings, it may be a bill collector and when you check the mail you may get new bills or past-due notices that you can't pay.
Whether your financial problems are associated with a high level of debt or insufficient income related to unemployment or under-employment, the associated pressure is constant and often overwhelming. The Council on Contemporary Families points out that every aspect of individual and family life can be impacted negatively by chronic stress associated with money problems for children and adults alike.
2. Work-Related Stress
Being employed is typically a good thing, and can certainly serve to alleviate stress associated with financial struggles. However, there is some stress associated with most - if not all - jobs. While not all work-related stress is chronic (or even negative), there are situations where a person's employment situation can actual be a source of damaging chronic stress that leads to burnout and, according to Psychology Today, in some cases a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
People who work in highly competitive or high-pressure work environments often experience chronic work-related stress, as do those who regularly deal with negativity or bullying from overbearing or verbally abusive co-workers, supervisors or customers. Worry about possible layoffs or company closings can also lead to chronic employment-related stress.
3. Marital Problems
While it is often believed that married people tend to be healthier than their unmarried counterparts, this is not the case for troubled marriages. A New York Times article called Is Marriage Good for Your Health? indicates that evidence "suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit."
CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reports that marital stress is actually worse for your health than work stress, at least in part due to the ongoing and long-term nature of living with relationship stress that impacts every aspect of your life, day in and day out, year after year.
Marital problems often lead to divorce, but ending the troubled relationship doesn't necessarily mean the end of associated chronic stress. An Iowa State University study published in 2006 indicated that "divorce actually increased chronic stress and produced greater physical illness over a 10-year span."
Researchers found that the mental health impact of coping with divorce was immediate, followed by longer-terms physical problems developing over a period of years. According to Psychology Today, chronic stress associated with divorce is related to a variety of factors, including having to start over, learning to live with less money, coping with changes to social and family relationships, worrying about how your children will be impacted and more.
5. Academic Pressure
Academic pressure can also be a chronic stressor, for students of every age and level - from elementary school through college and beyond. When you are enrolled in school, there is pressure to do well - and school becomes a daily focal point of your life no matter what else you are involved in or how old you are.
GreatSchools.org mentions standardized tests, increased homework loads and participation in advanced classes as school-related stressors. A 2013 Stockholm University survey revealed that one-third of Swedish high school students experience serious stress related to pressure to perform in school, with eight percent reporting stress levels high enough to be considered burnout.
People who assume the role of providing long-term care to loved ones who cannot care for themselves can experience chronic stress that is sometimes labeled as caregiver stress syndrome or caregiver syndrome. Results from an Ohio State University study suggest that "the chronic stress that spouses and children develop while caring for Alzheimer's disease patients may shorten the caregivers' lives by as much as four to eight years."
The same study "also provides concrete evidence that the effects of chronic stress can be seen both at the genetic and molecular level in chronic caregivers' bodies." Caregiver syndrome doesn't just affect caregivers for Alzheimer's patients; it can impact those who care for children with special needs, cancer patients, and people with any other chronic condition.
Recognition Is Key
The key to dealing with chronic stress starts with recognizing and changing behaviors and circumstances that lead to the presence of chronic stressors in your life whenever possible and applying stress management strategies that work for you. However, not every source of chronic stress can be diminished through behavioral change or stress management techniques.
When dealing with prolonged stress, it's essential to seek the assistance of a licensed mental health professional.