Chronic stress: Its impact and how to properly manage it

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 22 Dec 2023

In the fast-paced and dynamic society of Singapore, chronic stress has become an unwelcome companion for many individuals. The demands of modern life, coupled with various socio-economic factors, contribute to the prevalence of chronic stress among the population. In fact, data from the Asia Mental Health Index report stated that more than half of Singaporean workers, 52%, are more sensitive to stress compared to the previous year. However, only 43% openly admit that their mental health is negatively impacting their work productivity. These statistics underscore the urgent need to emphasise the importance of effective stress management while also bringing attention to the profound health impacts associated with chronic stress.

Health impacts of chronic stress

Chronic stress is more than just the occasional pressure we feel in challenging situations; it’s an ongoing, persistent state of heightened stress that often outlasts the triggering event. When stress is consistent, it can have significant and wide-ranging effects on both physical and mental health. Here are some of the potential health impacts of chronic stress:

Cardiovascular issues

Prolonged stress can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Stress activates the “fight or flight” response, resulting in elevated heart rate and blood pressure, which, over time, can strain the cardiovascular system.

Hormonal changes

When you are in a constant state of stress, this can lead to an increased production of stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, the chronic elevation of cortisol can affect the balance of hormones, leading to various issues, such as hair thinning and chronic fatigue syndrome, among others.

Digestive problems

Stress can cause digestion problems, leading to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), indigestion, and exacerbating symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases. Moreover, it can affect nutrient absorption and contribute to gastrointestinal discomfort.

Weight gain or loss

Chronic stress can disrupt eating patterns and metabolism, leading to weight gain or loss. Some individuals may resort to stress eating as a coping mechanism, while others may experience a loss of appetite.

Sleep disturbances

Stress often disrupts sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep. Sleep disturbances, in turn, can exacerbate stress, creating a cycle that negatively impacts overall well-being. Learn more about sleep problems and their treatment.

Mental health issues (anxiety and depression)

Another way chronic stress can significantly affect your well-being is that it can contribute to the development or exacerbation of anxiety and depression. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can alter brain chemistry and contribute to mood disorders.

Cognitive impairment

Long-term stress can negatively affect cognitive function, leading to difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making. It may also contribute to a heightened risk of neurodegenerative conditions over time.

Muscle tension and pain

Stress often manifests physically, leading to muscle tension, headaches, and chronic pain conditions. The body’s natural response to stress, involving the release of stress hormones, can contribute to muscle tightness and discomfort.

Tips for healthy stress management

While stress is an inevitable part of life, adopting healthy strategies can help mitigate its impact on your well-being. The mitigation of stress is seen as one of the 6 key pillars of good health, as evidenced in Lifestyle Medicine. 

Regular exercise

Regular physical activity helps in reducing stress hormones, triggering the release of endorphins to promote a positive mood. Exercise also provides an opportunity for relaxation and serves as a healthy outlet for stress.

Healthy eating habits

Maintaining a balanced diet by focusing on nutritious foods supports overall health, including the management of chronic stress. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and processed foods to stabilise your energy levels and mood.

Adequate sleep

Prioritise sufficient and quality sleep for proper chronic stress management. It’s essential that you establish a regular sleep routine and create a relaxing bedtime environment, as they contribute to improved overall well-being.

Social support

Maintaining strong social connections is crucial for emotional support. Sharing feelings and experiences with friends, family, or a support network can provide perspective and alleviate feelings of isolation.

Seeking professional help

If chronic stress becomes overwhelming, it’s recommended that you seek the guidance of mental health doctors, who can provide you with valuable support and treatment. Professional intervention can help individuals develop coping strategies and address underlying issues, such as anxiety and insomnia, among others. For further information, check out insights about stress and when to seek professional help.

Consider a holistic approach to preventing chronic stress

Beyond individual strategies, adopting a holistic approach can significantly contribute to preventing chronic stress and enhancing overall well-being. Working with a healthcare professional from an international medical clinic helps you address root causes rather than merely managing symptoms. This comprehensive approach acknowledges the interconnected nature of physical and mental health, paving the way for personalised strategies that not only alleviate the immediate effects of stress but also promote long-term resilience and a balanced sense of well-being.

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