What to Do When You’re Permastressed
Everyone feels stressed from time to time. The pressure we feel from short-lived stress—like being stuck in traffic—usually lessens when the source of the stress is resolved.
But sometimes, stressful situations can pile up, and the pressure does not go away. When this happens, it may feel like you’re “permastressed.” This trending word is being used to describe a state of chronic stress linked to the unique challenges of our time—navigating everything from the pandemic and climate change to political divisions and inflation, on top of everyday life.
What Is Acute vs. Chronic Stress?
Stress is a normal part of daily life. “When you experience stress, your mind and body react to help protect you and keep you safe,” says Adam Gonzalez, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, vice chair of behavioral health at Stony Brook Medicine, and founding director of the Stony Brook University Mind-Body Clinical Research Center.
There are two main types of stress: acute and chronic.
Acute stress is a short-term reaction to a stressful event that’s usually over quickly. You might experience acute stress when making a difficult phone call, getting cut off on the highway, or having an argument with a friend, Gonzalez explains. When all is said and done, you can take a sigh of relief and carry on.
Sometimes, temporary stress can even be a good thing. A form of positive stress known as eustress often results from challenging yet rewarding tasks or events, and may help motivate us.
Chronic stress is long-term stress that persists for weeks or months at a time. Gonzalez says you might experience chronic stress when faced with a financial challenge or being in an unsupportive relationship, but it can also stem from the toll of daily living and responsibilities. It’s the kind of stress that’s relentless—and it’s only becoming more common. There is the potential for acute stress to eventually become chronic stress.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your Health
“When you feel constantly on edge and cannot relax, your body starts to react to this increased stress level,” says Nekeshia Hammond, Psy.D., a psychologist, speaker, and author who specializes in stress management.
Being under constant stress (that is, permastress) can lead to problems for both your physical and mental health, from heart disease, inflammation, and digestive problems to depression and anxiety.
“Being stuck in the stress response can produce wear and tear on the mind and body,” Gonzalez adds.
Tips for Coping with Chronic Stress and Making Life More Manageable
Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy steps you can take to avoid chronic stress and feel more at peace. Start by working on building resilience of mind and body, Gonzalez suggests, as resilience is what helps you bounce back.
Try engaging in the following behaviors to help you manage stress and build resilience.
Research suggests that staying physically active may help reduce stress and its negative effects. “Try incorporating more movement in a way that brings you joy,” advises Hammond, who recommends options like yoga, walking, running, or hiking.
Consider Your Eating Habits
What you eat may have an impact on how you feel. Some research suggests that getting plenty of dietary fiber, omega-3s, and fermented foods may help you manage stress.
Studies suggest that chronic stress can have a negative impact on your ability to get a good night’s sleep. To combat this and get some quality rest, try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends).
Other sleep hygiene tips to consider: Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and free of electronics and avoid large meals (especially those containing caffeine or alcohol) in the hours before bedtime to help you fall—and stay—asleep.
Connect with Friends
“Surround yourself with other people who are uplifting and inspiring to you,” Hammond recommends. Why? Recent research emphasizes the importance of social support when it comes to boosting resilience in stressful situations.
Remember to Laugh
You know that joyful, airy feeling after a laugh so good it brings tears to your eyes? That very feeling may be one of your best tools to fight back against chronic stress. Research suggests that laughter really can be therapeutic—it’s known to help lower stress and boost mood.
Pump Up the Music
Recent findings suggest that music therapy can have a profound impact when it comes to reducing stress-related outcomes. Even if you aren’t seeing a music therapist, you may be able to lift your spirits and relax by simply throwing on some tunes.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
“Various meditation exercises, deep breathing, guided imagery, yoga, and prayer are great ways to [relax],” says Gonzalez, who recommends practicing these types of relaxation techniques every day as much as you can, but even for as little as five minutes.
“The more you practice, the more prepared your mind and body will be to manage stress,” he adds.
Skip the Quick Fixes
“Maladaptive or unhelpful coping methods like excessive alcohol and drug use, overeating or eating unhealthy food, and social withdrawal may appear to provide short-term immediate relief of stress,” notes Gonzalez. “However, these methods often result in great wear and tear and produce more stress and health problems in the long run.”
See Your Doctor
Another important component? Staying on top of your regular health checkups. “Go to the primary care physician to assess your physical health,” Hammond says. This can help you address any health issues that crop up because of, or are worsened by, chronic stress.
When to Seek Help for Permastress
“You don't have to experience chronic stress alone,” says Hammond, who recommends assembling a team of people who can help you through it.
To get started, Gonzalez recommends opening up to friends, family, and trusted loved ones. “Ask for what you need, whether that be emotional support and a nonjudgmental ear or help with problem-solving and brainstorming ways to manage the stressors that you are encountering,” he adds.
If you feel like chronic stress is always present and is interfering with your day-to-day life, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional. Some people may benefit from therapy, medication, or a combination of both to help deal with chronic stress.
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