Stress is a natural reaction of the body. It makes us act. Chronic stress in turn is an unwanted state where the brain concludes that we are under threat. The body is continuously ready to fight for our lives, which is a burden both physically and mentally. Chronic stress can lead to burnout and to many physical illnesses. Recognizing stress and taking care of recovery are an important part of well-being.

Chronic stress is behind many illnesses

Chronic stress is a strain for our bodies. It is known to be factor leading to many physical and mental illnesses.

  • The immune defense of our body is weakened when we are continuously stressed, and this might lead to a series of infections
  • Stress plays a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases, and cancer.
  • Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Enhanced appetite and storing of extra energy, with might lead to weight gain.
  • Deterioration of cognitive and emotional skills<
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Sleep disorders, that have a further negative effect on the above mentioned issues
  • Burnout

Stress is a natural reaction

We need momentary stress. It is a reaction of the autonomous nervous system where the brain helps us to best adapt to new situation. Stress helps us to solve physical and mental challenges.

The fight or flight response is a way for us to cope in a threatening, rapidly escalating situation. In the time of cavemen, situations requiring response were normally quickly over and fights did not last for weeks or months. For us today, things can be completely different: The stress reaction might be a permanent state, and the parasympathetic nervous system does not have the chance to return our body to rest.

Picture of a See Saw in a Moodmetric article 'Chronic stress'
A see-saw describes well the autonomous nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic part are active in turns.

To understand stress, we need to understand the autonomous nervous system

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates many body processes automatically, without a person’s conscious effort.

  • The ANS works unconsciously.
  • The ANS consists of two complementary parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
  • The sympathetic part is responsible for preparing our body for action. The sympathetic nervous system becomes active in stressful situations and during hard physical strain.
  • When active, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our heartbeat, enhancing digestion and healing. It strives to calm the body down and keep the vital functions stable.

The ANS regulates the functions of our body as situations so require. It keeps us alive without us knowingly doing anything about it. Disorders of it can affect any body part or process.

The sympathetic nervous system activates in a stressful situation

Both parts of the ANS normally work in good cooperation, but as a seesaw.  When the other becomes active, the other slows down. For instance, in acute stress reaction the sympathetic nervous system works at full speed, in an instant. The parasympathetic part ceases to operate and, for example, digestion almost comes to a halt. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems have evolved to enable accurate and fast regulation of our internal mechanisms, regardless of the situation.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the most active during sleep

Recovery and healing systems are the most active during sleep. This is when the sympathetic nervous system is inactive (we are not prepared to fight nor flight) and the parasympathetic part can do its work. After lunch it is important to digest the food and use the nutrients efficiently. When faced with imminent threat, the immune system and food processing are not important. These functions are turned off to conserve all possible energy for the use of muscles, which are needed in the fight-or-flight response.

In long term stress the cortisol levels in our body are continuously high

Chronic stress keeps the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis active. It is like an idling motor, pumping stress hormones, such as cortisol, to our system.

Cortisol helps us to confront the threat, but it simultaneously shuts down the immune system. From the evolutionary point of view, this makes sense: If a crocodile attacks, we can shut down all the functions in the body that are not essential for fleeing or fighting. The immune defense of our body is weakened when we are continuously stressed, and this might lead to a series of infections. Stress factors also play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases, and cancer. Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Worrying and fear increase our mental load and can put further strain on the sympathetic nervous system; physical symptoms persist, recovery via beneficial rest and sleep does not happen.

Heavy cognitive and emotional load during recovery from an illness might be as bad for our body as physical exercise. Our body would choose to put the work aside when being ill.

Chronic stress affects memory, concentration and appetite

In a state of chronic stress, the brain thinks that a physical fight is about to start at any time. Cortisol, in turn, tells our body to have much energy available. It then enhances appetite and storing of extra energy, with might lead to weight gain.

Stress hormone cortisole enhances appetite and storing of extra energy, with might lead to weight gain.

Cortisol is also released to the hippocampus, the part of our brain which is central for memorizing and learning. A stressed-out person has difficulties in learning and regulating their emotions. There are also often problems associated with concentration and memory.

Burnout

Chronic stress cannot go on forever without its repercussions. Burnout is the consequence of chronic stress causing severe disturbance to our vital physical and mental mechanisms. A simultaneous collapse of our psychological, neural, metabolic and immune systems might be so all-encompassing that a complete recovery is very slow or even impossible.

Burnout might develop over a months or years, and it might be difficult to detect the early signs. The best cure for burnout is prevention.

  • Talk to your friends and family, colleagues, your superior or a health care professional if you feel that the load is too high.
  • Usually the first cautionary signs are linked to changes in your sleep patterns. During sleep our bodies and brain repair and restore in ways we’re not aware of. It is almost like we need a nightly reboot to feel physically and mentally well.
  • An objective stress measurement helps to get a good picture of the situation

When our lives are in balance, we recover from acute stress reactions and even longer burdensome periods of strain. When we sleep well most nights and feel refreshed in the morning, our body and mind are better prepared to perform well. We might have stressful days but we avoid the stress getting chronic.

Chronic stress – Summary

  • The autonomous nervous system consists of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. When the other activates, the other retires.
  • Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic part have several uncousciously managed tasks. The parasympathetic is most active during sleep, when it efficiently helps us recover.
  • The sympathetic nervous system is most active during the acute stress reaction. Then the parasympathetic part shuts off and the body is prepared to fight.
  • Chronic stress is a strain for the body. It is in connection with several physical and mental illnesses.
  • Stressed or not? If you sleep well and wake up well rested, most probably you do not suffer from overload. If you have persisting sleep problems, it is good to try and undestand your life as a whole and look for ways to gain balance.

 

The complete set of 5 articles explains the Moodmetric measurement, science behind and the applications:

  1. Part 1: Fight or flight response
  2. Part 2: Chronic stress
  3. Part 3: Tools for long term and continuous stress measurement
  4. Part 4: Measuring stress with the Moodmetric smart ring
  5. Part 5: Moodmetric measurement in preventive health care

 

Jaa artikkeli

Niina Venho

CEO, Sales, Research programs, Co-founder
niina.venho@moodmetric.com

ANS autonomic nervous system chronic stress mental illness mental load parasympathetic nervous system stress sympathetic nervous system