Systems Overload: The Effects of Chronic Stress

Yvette Cabrera, Librarian, International Languages Department,
Illustration of person with eyes close and hands out in a connected mind and body posture

Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. A small amount of stress can be good, motivating you to perform well. But multiple challenges daily, such as sitting in traffic, meeting deadlines, and paying bills, can push you beyond your ability to cope.

Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This "fight-or-flight" response fuels you to deal with the threat.

Once the threat is gone, your body is meant to return to a normal, relaxed state. Unfortunately, the nonstop complications of modern life mean that some people's alarm systems rarely shut off. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems.

The workplace is a common source of chronic stress. “Many of our clients work in very toxic and abusive environments, and the resulting chronic stress that they experience in the workplace has an impact on other aspects of their lives,” states Grace Olguin, Member Support Coordinator at the Garment Worker Center.

The Garment Worker Center offers an array of supportive services to garment workers throughout southern California and works to improve the working conditions for garment workers in sweatshops “It was important for us to develop programs and services to provide our clients with the tools and support to manage their stress as we advocate for better work conditions. We see firsthand how chronic stress in the workplace can destroy the mental and physical health of workers and ruin the livelihood of their families”.

“Chronic stress can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a head start on managing them” states Dr. Desmonette Hazly, integrative health specialist.  “Stress that's left unchecked can contribute to many chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.”

Some of the symptoms of chronic stress include: Headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, sleep problems, anxiety, irritability or anger, sadness, or depression.

Having tools to manage your stress is important for your long-term health and well-being. Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that can help you decompress from your stress:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed but hearing about the traumatic event constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat healthy meals, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and give yourself a break if you feel stressed out.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Talk to others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a parent, friend, counselor, doctor, or pastor.
  • Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. These may seem to help, but they can create additional problems and increase the stress you are already feeling.
  • Recognize when you need more help. If problems continue or you are thinking about suicide, talk to a psychologist, social worker, or professional counselor.

Suggested Reading

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The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease
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5 Good Minutes of Mindfulness: Reduce Stress, Reset, and Find Peace Right Now
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The Power of Guided Meditation: Simple Practices to Promote Wellbeing
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Write Away Your Stress: Tame the Tension in Your Life
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Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit
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