Fighting Chronic Stress and Building Resilience

Stress is one of the things in life that we just cannot avoid.

In fact, things or events that activate our stress response, or stressors, are everywhere in the environment and can include things like meeting deadlines at work, giving a speech or presentation, skipping a meal, or even exercising.

Importantly, short-term or “acute” stress is meant to allow people to adapt to their surroundings and be able to overcome everyday life challenges.

The problem arises when stress happens too often and occurs too frequently—in this case, you are now dealing with chronic stress, and this can be bad for your health [1].

How is Chronic Stress Bad for Me?

The stress response is made up of several systems in your body that together help you overcome daily challenges.

The primary system that has been studied is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Stressors can activate the HPA axis which causes hormones, like cortisol, to be released into the blood [2].

These hormones help regulate the stress response and allow you to adapt to stress [2].

However, if this response is activated over and over again with little time for it to recover, your body begins to change how it responds to stressors [3], which can be harmful in the long run.

One of the ways chronic stress can be bad for you is by changing the way your immune system responds to stress. This is because the stress response and the immune system work together to prepare you for stressful events [4]

In fact, it is suggested that chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body [5], which may lead to things like mental health disorders (i.e., depression) [6].

Link Between Chronic Stress and Health

There are many reasons you want to try and avoid chronic stress as much as possible.

One reason is because chronic stress is linked with lower heart health, such as increased cardiovascular events like stroke and heart attacks.

As mentioned, chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body [5], and inflammation has been linked to lower levels of motivation and mood [7].

In this context, chronic stress can be a source of lower activity levels and negative mood throughout the day.

Low levels of activity, or sedentary behavior, can increase the risk of developing heart disease [8] as well as metabolic and mood disorders like diabetes and depression, respectively [9]

Stress can also negatively affect your sleep quality [10], and with chronic stress, you can expect your sleep to be impacted night after night for long periods of time.

This can result in sleep deprivation, which is also associated with negative health outcomes [11,12].

Ways to Build Resilience to Chronic Stress

Two ways you can begin to take control of chronic stress and build resilience to its effects are to exercise regularly (but not too much) and practice mindfulness.

Exercising and chronic stress

One of the ways exercising can help you battle the effects of chronic stress is through its effects on the immune system.

In fact, long-term resistance training or combined exercise programs were associated with lower expression of genes that are responsible for increasing inflammation [13,14].

This means that engaging in resistance training may help you deal with the effects of chronic stress by regulating the immune system and increasing anti-inflammatory processes in the body.

As well, studies suggest that exercise can boost resilient mindsets [15] possibly through various mechanisms that include reducing inflammation, increasing endorphins, and regulating the function of the HPA axis [16].

Thus, exercising is one of the best ways to promote resilience to chronic stress and fend off many of the harmful effects that chronic stress can introduce to the body.

Mindfulness effects on stress

Another interesting approach to help you deal with chronic stress is by engaging in mindfulness-based strategies to become more in tune with your emotions.

For example, participants in one study were taught mindfulness strategies that were developed to reduce stress levels.

Researchers found that these strategies helped reduce the perceived level of stress and anxiety in patients with cancer as well as their caregivers [17].

The power of mindfulness was even shown to be effective in adolescents.

Specifically, when mindfulness training was provided as part of a school routine, researchers found a significant boost to student resilience, likely through their increased ability to self-regulate emotions [18].

Thus, mindfulness training may help you boost resilience when dealing with stress by helping you regulate emotions and may even allow you to prevent the harmful effects that can result from chronic stress exposure.

Stress Less with a Healthy Mind and Body

Stress is incredibly difficult to avoid but is meant to help us navigate through hard times.

By shaping the way you think about stress through mindfulness training and by increasing physical activity so your body chemistry remains stable, you can promote a positive outlook in life no matter what challenge is thrown your way.

Try and incorporate more activity into your daily routine and take some time to reflect on your inner emotions from time-to-time.

In doing so, you may find that everything can be much easier to handle.

As always, consult your physician before making any significant changes to your diet and/or lifestyle.

Author: Brett Melanson is a PhD Candidate in Behavioral NeuroscienceHis interests primarily reside within the life sciences with an emphasis on stress-based psychopathologies.

References
  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28856337/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27065163/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27054552/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30012518/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24417575/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32450998/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27480574/
  8. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/fulltext/2017/04000/sedentary_behavior_and_cardiovascular_disease.5.aspx
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33616042/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33766621/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33897355/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33416458/
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33965901/
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33965902/
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33829973/
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29150166/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33921296/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32615895/

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