Are you suffering from chronic stress? 9 subtle warning signs you’re at breaking point

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • 60% of adults in the UK have reported their mental health has worsened since the start of the pandemic.

    It’s probably no surprise that Google searches for ‘chronic stress symptoms’ are currently up 100%.

    It’s been a stressful year for everyone, thanks to COVID-19, with many being made redundant, having to last minute homeschool, and, heartbreakingly, losing loved ones in unprecedented circumstances.

    So, yep, everyone’s pretty stressed. But do you know what chronic stress is, how to identify the symptoms in yourself, and how to act to treat them? Like many mental health conditions, it often presents subtly, making it harder to identify – until you’re at breaking point.

    One in four of us will experience a mental health condition each year and, sadly, thanks to COVID-19, this is only increasing. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) has also revealed in April to June last year saw the highest level of anxiety reported since 2011.

    “The UN has warned that, even when the actual infection of coronavirus ends, the mental health impacts are likely to continue. This includes stress, anxiety, depression and all that may come under the mental health umbrella,” shares GP doctor Houda Ounnas.

    Save yourself from that – as no one needs more stress this year – we’ve enlisted the help of two doctors to break down chronic stress for you. Educate yourself on the signs, symptoms and treatments (ahem, self care ideas, we’re looking at you), and you’ll feel better in no time.

    So, what is the definition of chronic stress?

    According to Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, chronic stress is feeling overwhelmed by stress for a prolonged period of time. “Stress is your body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure, and is something that we all experience at times,” he explains.

    He continues: “When we experience stress our bodies release cortisol – a stress hormone – which triggers a fight or flight response, helping us respond quickly to stressful situations.”

    Sometimes, this can helpful – think keeping you on track in the run up to a tight work deadline or maintaining focus pre a driving test. But, as with anything, it’s all about moderation. “There’s a point where stress becomes too much to deal with. If you are repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, you’ll constantly be in that ‘fight of flight’ mode, leaving you to feel overwhelmed,” the expert explains.

    Chronic stress symptoms: a woman massaging her temples

    9 chronic stress symptoms to have on your radar

    Chronic stress can cause many different symptoms and can affect us all differently, shares Vandenabeele. “It may affect how you feel mentally and physically, as well as how you behave,” he shares.

    Some of the main symptoms of chronic stress are:

    • Headaches or dizziness
    • Chest pain or a faster heartbeat
    • Stomach or bowel problems
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Feeling anxious or worried
    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Irritable behaviour
    • Changes to your appetite (eating too much or too little)
    • Difficulty falling asleep at night.

    What’s the difference between stress and chronic stress?

    Good question. Quite simply, stress is short-term and chronic stress is more long term.

    As doctor Ounnas explains, stress is normal, as is the fight or flight response it evokes – but not for long periods of time. “If you feel high levels of stress for anything longer than six weeks, you’re experiencing chronic stress.”

    Vandenabeele agrees, further adding: “Stress is short-term – many of us experience low levels of stress in our daily lives without any lasting effects. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a result of being exposed to stressful situations over a long period of time.”

    As a result, you’ll feel unable to relax, and are more likely to experience health conditions such as anxiety, depression, headaches and problems with sleeping, he shares.

    5 tips for dealing with chronic stress, plus when to see a doctor

    Vandenabeele stresses that there are lots of ways to cope with chronic stress, and it’s important to find what works for you. These guidelines may help – as may our guide to stress management techniques.

    1. Identify your stressors

    First thing’s first: identify what makes you feel stressed. “Establishing your main stressors can help you to try to change your thoughts and behaviours when faced with stressful situations,” explains Vandenabeele.

    2. Schedule relaxation time

    Sounds simple and obvious, but relaxation truly is the antidote to stress. “Protect your down time,” urges doctor Ounnas.

    Try this:

    • Switch off your phone
    • Don’t check emails
    • Avoid social media
    • Try mediation
    • Get moving
    • Focus on some breathing exercises
    • Opt for journaling
    • Connect with nature.

    Do read our guide to the many benefits of meditation, while you’re here.

    3. Don’t mask the symptoms

    Quick fix medications such as laxatives, energy bars or sleeping pills are not the answer, warns Ounnas. “These are never the answer in the long run – get to the root of your chronic stress as the problem and treat it, rather than masking it,” she shares.

    4. Talk to someone you trust

    Speaking to someone you trust about how you feel can really help, share both doctors.

    “Even talking stressful situations over with friends and family may help you to look at the situation differently,” explains Vandenabeele.

    5. See a professional

    If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, Ounnas recommends seeing a counsellor or considering online therapy. “If stress is affecting your mental health or leading to developing anxiety, depression or relationship problems, it’s time to act,” she shares.

    Lastly, do remember that if you’re suffering, your doctor is always just a phone call away. They’re there to support you – it’s their job, after all.

    Reading now

    Popular Life stories