Understanding chronic stress and its impact on health

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Chronic stress is a persistent issue that affects many aspects of our health, from weight gain to strokes and even brain damage.

Unlike everyday stress, chronic stress is a constant feeling that can disrupt sleep patterns, eating habits, and overall body functions. Factors such as the pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change are significant contributors to chronic stress.

Leah Doane, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology at ASU, explained why chronic stress is so detrimental to our well-being.

“Chronic stress is something that happens over a period of time, so either a repeated experience or perhaps a traumatic experience, which then someone re-experiences over and over again,” Dr. Doane said.

Dr. Doane explains that PTSD, poverty or racism can all be outcomes of chronic stress.

“Our body is actually really smart, so in some ways, our body is designed to react to stress,” Dr. Doane said. “So when we experience a stressor, there’s a whole cascade of actions starting in the brain and basically ends up with our body having the resources to be able to deal with that stressor.”

But that’s what happens with acute stress. When chronic stress happens, the body is taxed because responding over and over to the perceived stressor and it stops reacting in the way that it should.

“Some people will just need a reminder of the stressor,” Dr. Doane said. “For others, it might be something that happens to them every day.”

Ongoing stress can lead to what Dr. Doane calls “wear and tear.” Sweating or a heightened heart rate can happen at the moment, but over time, bodies have difficulty fighting sicknesses or develop cardiovascular issues.

Dr. Doane suggests going for a walk, spending time outdoors and spending time with family and friends are just a few ways to cope with stress. You can also practice gratitude, adopt a more positive mindset or try meditation.

Leah Doane, Ph. D., Professor, Dept. of Psychology, ASU

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