The Long-Term Effects of Chronic Stress

Photo: Carl & Evelina Kleiner

The bad news: the World Health Organization recently announced that it now recognizes burnout as a real, chronic stress-related medical condition. The symptoms include depleted mental and physical energy, and an influx of negative emotions, particularly around work. It’s clear that in an era of hyper-connectedness and non-stop schedules, we are all susceptible to undue levels of stress. The good news: the wellness community has turned towards the practice of mindfulness to identify the connection between our external stressors and internal responses as one way to reduce the harms of stress done to our systems, by emphasizing tools like breathwork, meditation, and intention setting, as well as physical activity and healthy eating.

What is burnout, and why is it so often accompanied by anxiety?

According to holistic wellness coach Charlene Rymsha, the state of burnout manifests when you are “unable to return to the Parasympathetic mode of the Central Nervous System so the body and the mind are unable to fully rejuvenate.” That’s the portion of the nervous system responsible for heart rate and energy conservation. “Over time,” she says, “this can result in chronic health issues such as lowered immune system response (i.e. that nagging cold that won't go away), chronic headaches, and other unexplainable aches and pains. Emotionally, it sends the message of a lack of safety, so low-grade panic and anxiety is very common for people who experience burnout.”

In the simplest terms, stress causes a "fight, flight, or freeze" response in humans, which on a biological level triggers the release of hormones cortisol and adrenaline. According to a 2013 research letter done by doctors at Beth Israel and Harvard Medical School, despite stress being a source for as much as 80% of visits to a physician, only 3% of office visits included any kind of counseling about stress reduction. Commonly called “the stress hormone,” the ongoing release of cortisol can lead to heart disease, fatigue, depression, and anxiety, among harming other physical processes like sleep and emotion processing. Ultimately, it will end up impacting your most important resource, your personal health.

Addressing chronic stress

The good news is that addressing the core issues will start to untangle to negative, pervasive effects that may have set in as a result of your physical, mental, and emotional state. Holistic stress management techniques that will chip away at symptoms of burnout can include establishing an exercise routine, incorporating more whole, nutritious foods, and dedicating time to mind-body relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation. The Mayo Clinic reports on the overall effectiveness of yoga, which is seen to “bring together physical and mental disciplines that may help you achieve peacefulness of body and mind," adding for patients that it is a powerful tool that "can help you relax and manage stress and anxiety.”

According to Naturopathic doctor Janelle Lewis, whose women-centered practice addresses mental health conditions, reproductive concerns, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic syndromes, “Chronic stress also affects the immune system in the long run. In fact, in up to 80% of cases of diagnosed autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, and lupus, individuals reported experiencing unusually high levels of psychological or emotional stress immediately prior to diagnosis.” To help her patients address these issues, she commonly prescribes the following: “To help combat the effects of stress, I recommend my patients use adaptogenic herbs like Reishi mushroom and Ashwagandha. These herbs have been shown to modulate stress hormone production and release in a manner that is beneficial to the body.”

Though we may feel beholden to the pace of life going on around us, the ability to healthily connect with our inner selves is a powerful tool that we do have control over. At Standard Dose, we are committed to practicing and sharing the benefits that a mind-body connection can have in achieving homeostasis, through the pillars of yoga, meditation, and plant-based wellness. 

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