First, a quick story.
During my 20s and early 30s, I thought stress was in my head.
“Stress is for wimps,” I thought. “I’ll deal with it.”
So, I did. I threw on my blinders and charged for the finish line. I plowed through all-nighters, relationship drama, job uncertainty, immigration issues, unexpected cross-country (and trans-Atlantic) moves and corporate overwhelm. ‘Cause there was nothing a yoga class, a glass of wine or a good night’s rest couldn’t fix.
Meanwhile, during phone-calls, my mom would offer out-of-the-blue, “I think your problem is stress.”
“Mom. I’m not stressed!” Of course, I was. Moms just know.
The truth is, while I looked calm on the outside, I was building up like a pressure-cooker inside. In reality, because my body was in stress overload for years, my adrenals had taken a beating. And this led to issues like weight gain, PCOS, low blood pressure, low thyroid and major “hanger” outbursts.
Turns out, by ignoring my stress, I had created a monster. I was on the fast-track to burnout, but just didn’t know it yet.
Acute versus Chronic Stress
Let’s be clear: stress is a crucial survival instinct – your body’s way of protecting you. And after your initial fight-or-flight response, your body is wired to bounce back and restore balance. This is called acute stress.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is sneaky – lingering long after the original stressor passes, and sometimes involving multiple stressors. For example, receiving a health scare right after you’ve spent months planning for your big wedding. Or, navigating a marital challenge, loss or grief during a global pandemic.
This persistent and prolonged stress is destructive and can mess with everything from your digestion to blood sugar to mood to immunity. Chronic stress throws off your body’s balance and can show up in the form of belly fat, high cholesterol, hormone imbalance, acid reflux, infections, joint pain and more.
So, when Is stress A problem?
When does stress become chronic? When should you pay attention to your stress levels and learn strategies to buffer it? When should you ask for help?
Only you can answer this. Reflect on these prompts, and be honest with yourself. Awareness is the first step to understanding and buffering your stress response.
1. When it’s prolonged.
Chronic stress is described as stress that occurs for “several weeks or longer.” Consider how long you’ve felt stress or overwhelm. Maybe a big event triggered your stress response, and your body didn’t have a chance to fully recover from it. Meanwhile other daily stressors took over, keeping your body in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
2. When it makes you sick.
When your stress response is consistently activated, your body will send you notifications, much like your trusted smartphone.
“Your phone battery is low.”
“Your phone is overheating.”
“Restart phone now for updates.”
Your body sends you similar signals to unplug, recharge, take a break, stretch, eat and hydrate. And if you keep ignoring them (no judgement here; I do it too), the signs get bigger and louder until you pay attention.
I created the picture below to illustrate the many ways chronic stress can show up in your body (not an exhaustive list).
As you can see, stress is linked to several health conditions. In some cases, it’s the root cause; in others, a catalyst.
Don’t ignore these signs. Your body is throwing you red flags and wants you to pay attention! It’s time to slow down, take stock of your stress levels and adopt daily habits that nurture and support you.
Which brings me to #3.
3. When you have insufficient resources to navigate it.
Stress and coping researchers, Lazarus and Folkman describe stress as when, “the demands of a situation exceed our resources to cope.”
Resources can include external ones like a reliable support system; or internal ones, like nutritional mineral reserves (more on that in a later post).
During my toughest months of chronic stress, I thought I had ample support. A loving family and friends, a regular yoga practice and healthy diet…all checked out. Turns out, I still had major gaps in my resource tool-kit.
For one, I didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ or create boundaries where it mattered. Next, I didn’t know how to support my nervous system when my stress-response kicked in. Finally, I didn’t know how to ask for help, or who to turn to.
If this sounds like you, please know that a) you’re not alone, and b) you’re in the right place.
- Download The Chronic Stress Survival Cheat-Sheet for 15 tips to nourish, recharge and support you when you’re stressed. Print it out, keep it handy and refer to it often.
- Talk to me. I offer a free 30-minute “Break-the-Cycle” consult (no strings attached) and am here to support you in creating a calmer, more joyful and nourished life with food and lifestyle tweaks.
Stress doesn’t go away. But learning tools to navigate stress and support your nervous system can change how you respond to it, and ease your body back into balance over time.
While my chronic stress journey was one of the scariest times of my life; I’m thankful it gave me a newfound appreciation for my body’s nervous system as well as the skills to soothe and support it going forward. I hope it’ll do the same for you.
I’d love to hear if you learned something new in this post. Let me know in the comments below!