We've all experienced stressful situations from time to time. Stress is your body's biological instinct to a perceived threat; for instance, your fight-or-flight response spikes when a car on the highway nearly swerves into yours. After averting the crisis, your heart rate eventually goes back to normal.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is often more pervasive and harder to resolve. And what's more, you may be suffering from chronic stress without even knowing it.
Here's what you should know about chronic stress, and six ways to help lessen its impact on your life.
Table of Contents
Common sources of chronic stress
Yale Medicine describes chronic stress as "a consistent sense of feeling pressured or overwhelmed over a long period of time."
And even without direct conflict, the strain of everyday life can cause chronic stress: navigating your daily rush-hour commute, caring for a sick baby, struggling with insurance or juggling tight work deadlines.
Throw in economic instability or a toxic workplace and you have a recipe for adrenaline overdrive.
Chronic stress and your health
More than 75% of American adults experience negative health effects as a result of lifestyle stress, according to an October 2022 report by the American Psychological Association, and more than 25% say they are too stressed to function most days.
Your brain knows the difference between a wild animal attack and an angry boss. But your body doesn't, and it responds to a yelling match by dumping massive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol — the stress hormone — into your bloodstream.
You may develop headaches, fatigue, depression and anxiety if your body is constantly unable to resolve the source of your distress. Over time, these symptoms can develop into serious health issues, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, mental illness, sleep issues and weight gain.
6 ways to relieve chronic stress
Unfortunately, many of our modern stressors are here to stay. But while we can't control much of the world around us, we can control how we respond to them.
Here are several ways to recognize and neutralize your chronic stress triggers.
1. Take a deep breath
The journey toward a less-stressed life begins with a single breath (or two, or three). Our bodies tense up during stressful times, biologically preparing to flee the perceived threat, taking short, shallow breaths that can trigger deeper anxiety and internal tension over time.
Deep, slow breaths that fill your belly and chest can counteract this stress response, lowering the cortisol levels in your body. Try box breathing, a technique used by both yogis and Navy SEALs to calm the body and the mind:
- Inhale deeply for four slow counts
- Hold your breath for four slow counts
- Exhale slowly for four counts
- Hold your breath again for a final four counts
Repeat this cycle three or four times to complete the session. Ideally, try practicing your box breathing once or twice a day regardless of how you feel at the time so you become more comfortable with the exercise.
2. Cultivate mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the most powerful ways to reduce chronic stress without outside intervention.
This practice of self awareness and intentional presence can help you rewire the parts of your brain associated with emotion regulation and attention, allowing you to improve your coping skills and your ability to focus. Mindfulness can even help with pain management if you can learn to shift the way your body experiences pain.
You don't have to quit your job and sell everything you own to begin a practice of mindfulness. You can start small with the first 30 seconds of your day:
- As soon as you wake up, sit up in your bed or on a chair (don't check your phone!)
- Close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths that fill up your lungs and belly
- Choose and set an intention for your day. An intention is a theme, question or thought that you want to hold close and consider throughout the day. It can be as simple as, "Today will be a good day."
- Open your eyes and start your day. Pause periodically for a few moments to realign yourself with your intention. This helps you stay focused on what's important to you, no matter what happens throughout your day.
3. Set and enforce boundaries
Chronic stress can develop out of relationships where you feel like you don't have any control. Boundaries help you protect your mental health and negate unnecessary stress in interpersonal relationships.
You can practice setting constructive boundaries when your in-laws feed your children sweets without asking you first. If you don't speak up, resentment and stress may build up when it's bedtime, but your children are bouncing off the walls on a sugar high. Instead, try saying, "When the kids eat sweets before dinner, it throws off their meal and sleep schedule for the rest of the week. Please ask me before giving them treats so I can make sure it fits into their routine."
Similarly, you can set boundaries at work when your boss assigns you a non-urgent task right before the end of the day. Instead of automatically staying late to get the job done after hours, consider asking, "Thanks for letting me know what you need. Can I tackle this first thing when I get into the office tomorrow?"
4. Move your body
Exercise is consistently touted as one of the best ways to counteract chronic stress. Getting active boosts your endorphins, the group of hormones that help your brain understand what feels good. Plus, wearing yourself out physically helps you sleep better and more deeply at night.
Moving your body doesn't necessarily mean running a marathon. Start by taking a walk in the neighborhood before work or after dinner, or riding your bike to the grocery store instead of driving.
Experts recommend building up to a weekly routine with a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio activity with at least two (or more) strength training sessions. Brisk walking and running, swimming and biking are just a few of the activities encouraged for this routine.
And if you enjoy tracking your progress, you're not alone: Many smartwatch users have found that monitoring their fitness activities motivates them to work out more frequently.
5. Prioritize your sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is important for healing chronic stress, as it gives your body a chance to rest and reset. As any parent of a young child knows, it's nearly impossible to reset your body's stress responses without sleep. In fact, sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture that deeply disrupts biological and psychological health.
Getting a full eight hours isn't always feasible, but you can set yourself up for success by prioritizing it to the best of your ability.
Experts suggest putting away computers and phones at least an hour or two before bedtime to give your body a chance to taper off the impact of blue lights from LED screens, which suppress the secretion of melatonin — the hormone your body produces in response to darkness.
And instead of using your phone as your alarm, consider getting an analog alarm clock so you don't wake up to your to-do list first thing in the morning.
6. Re-evaluate your lifestyle
While most of us can't change everything about our lives that stress us out, we have more control and power than we think. Take a careful look at the major sources of stress in your life — in some cases, taking drastic action can help save you from total burnout.
If your children's social activities are running you ragged, it may be time to streamline down to a single extracurricular activity, or cut out some playdates until you have more bandwidth. Try working with other friends or neighbors to coordinate carpools so you have a bit more flexibility.
You may also consider working with a therapist to address underlying issues in your life that contribute to your stress. A trained mental health professional can help you understand how you experience the world and guide you toward more fulfilling ways of living.