The Warning Signs of Chronic Stress and How It Impacts Health

The Warning Signs of Chronic Stress and How It Impacts Health (2)
Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

Who isn’t stressed these days? The modern world is full of stressors, and society is hooked on adrenaline. Stress is everywhere, and feeling stressed is accepted as a normal state. Yet, consciously or subconsciously, we inadvertently turn a blind eye to the havoc stress can wreak.

There is a pervading blasé attitude towards the consequences of chronic stress. Stress is now accepted as the price for success in the workplace and in all aspects of life. As a result, more and more people are slipping into chronic stress states.

Society must wake up. Chronic stress is killing us.

This blog explains the dangers of chronic stress and how to spot the warning signs.

Stress: a global epidemic

Studies on the prevalence of stress are alarming. In the UK, 79 per cent of people report that they frequently suffer from work-related stress, and one in 14 adults feels stressed every single day.1

A similar picture exists in the United States and Europe. The American Psychological Association (APA) says stress has ‘battered the American psyche’. In a recent APA poll, around one-third of adult respondents (34 per cent) reported that stress is completely overwhelming most days.2

And in a recent study of 11,000 Europeans by Statista, over half of the respondents in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Italy, more than 40 per cent in Germany and Spain, and 33 per cent in Switzerland and France, said they were suffering from stress.3

Then, add Covid-19, which, according to the World Health Organization, triggered a 25 per cent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.4 An example since the pandemic is Asia, which has been hit hard by burnout and poor mental health outcomes.5 In addition, violent political conflict in Middle Eastern countries, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are causing toxic stress and health problems.6

This is a tiny snapshot of the world’s stressed-out state. Stress is on the rise in all corners of the globe.

A little bit of stress is a good thing

Before we get into the damaging nature of prolonged stress, we mustn’t forget that manageable stress is a positive thing. Stress is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat, so it’s essential to understand that not all stress is bad.

In small bursts, stress is vital. In the short term, stress boosts energy, improves cognitive function (sharpens our thinking), and motivates us to meet daily challenges and achieve goals in life.

A moderate amount of stress has powerful benefits and boosts resilience. Research shows that manageable stress increases alertness and performance, and by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, it improves memory.7

The key is being able to identify good stress from bad. So, when does stress cross the line and go from beneficial to harmful?

What is chronic stress?

There are two types of stress – acute (or normal) and chronic. Chronic stress is the evil twin. Typically, stress ebbs and flows, but it becomes chronic when there is a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a prolonged period.

Stress can easily creep up, and frequently people don’t make the association either that they are in a chronic stress state or that it is exacerbating or even causing other health problems.

To fully understand the impact of chronic stress, it’s essential to know what happens physiologically when we experience mild or moderate stress. Then it is easy to see why it can be harmful if we live persistently in this state.

When we encounter stress, our bodies produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. These are chemical messengers which trigger our bodies to respond appropriately to threats. Commonly, this is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. First, our brain recognises a threat, and then it sends a message to our endocrine (hormone) system, which produces hormones that upregulate or downregulate systems in the body.

This response benefits us when we are facing a stressful situation. It increases our alertness and strength and enables us to react quickly.

During stress, the immune system is activated, the heart rate increases, more blood flows to active muscles, the concentration of blood glucose increases, and the rate of cellular metabolism increases. However, at the same time, other systems in the body, such as digestion, are downregulated.

As you can see, when we are stressed, there’s a lot going on physiologically. This shows how continual activation of the stress response mechanism impacts health. For example, allergic reactions might develop because the body’s inflammatory response is over-firing. Research shows that inflammation is the common pathway to many stress-related diseases.8

During stress, wound healing is also interrupted because immunity is impacted at the cellular level.

In addition, with many digestive functions downregulated during stress, digestive problems, such as heartburn, bloating, constipation, or diarrhoea, are more common.

Do all people respond to stress in the same way?

No. Some can handle a lot more stress than others, and people respond to stressors in different ways. What causes stress for one person may be like water off a duck’s back for another. Individuals can also react differently to the same stressors from week to week. One day something may feel stressful, but a week later, the same thing happens, and it doesn’t feel stressful at all.

In addition, the way our body reacts to stress begins to get shaped during pregnancy in the womb. If the mother experiences chronic stress, the stress axis of the foetus is also affected. 

The stress hormone cortisol plays a vital role in fetal development, but when a mother is exposed to intense or prolonged stress during pregnancy, excessive cortisol disrupts the brain development of the unborn child. These changes in fetal brain circuitry can lead to hypersensitivity to stress later in life.

Because we all have different sensitivities, strategies to prevent chronic stress and its consequences must be personalised and constantly adapted to suit the individual and circumstances. The critical thing to get right is to spot the warning signs and know when a normal stress level is turning to chronic.

The warning signs of chronic stress

There are many physical and mental warning signs to indicate stress is becoming problematic. Fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, teeth grinding, loss of libido, and frequent infections or illnesses are common signs and symptoms of chronic stress.

There are three key indicators you might be struggling with chronic stress.

1. Emotional overwhelm

A change in emotional response to others and everyday situations is a sign stress may be getting the better of you. Emotional changes to look out for include:

  • Being more emotional than usual
  • Feeling on edge and unable to switch off
  • Feeling burdened, overwhelmed and helpless
  • Poor memory
  • Indecisive
  • Having trouble solving problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling anxious or afraid
  • Loss of sense of humour

2. Changes in appetite and digestion

The brain and the gut are closely connected, so stress affects every part of the digestive system. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with thousands and thousands of nerve cells that make up the enteric nervous system. They regulate enzymes and digestive processes, such as swallowing, and categorise food into nutrients and waste. Stress can impede many of these functions.

Stress can increase stomach acid and cause indigestion. It can also cause constipation, diarrhoea or nausea, cramping, inflammation, and an imbalance of gut bacteria. In addition, stress will exacerbate existing gastrointestinal issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

During stress, appetite is typically suppressed. You don’t need to eat or prepare food while being chased by a lion (an extreme stress state). However, when stress becomes chronic, the body craves high-fat and energy-dense foods.

Chronic stress causes cravings and affects eating behaviours and weight regulation; hence the phrase ‘stress eating’. So, reaching for sweet, salty and fatty comfort foods could be a sign you are suffering from stress.

3. Sleep

Chronic stress dysregulates the sleep cycle, causing insomnia and other circadian (sleep rhythm) disorders. When under constant pressure, you may find you are experiencing difficulties falling and staying asleep.

This is because the structural organisation of sleep is affected by stress, including the duration of each stage of sleep. People experiencing chronic stress spend less time in deep sleep and experience more disruptions during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Ironically, sleep loss further triggers our stress response system (it elevates the stress hormone cortisol), so sleep is disrupted further. This reciprocal relationship can make sleep problems a vicious cycle.

Sleep is important because it decreases cortisol levels.

Treating chronic stress, the CALDA way

The list of causes, and adverse effects of chronic stress on physical and mental health, is long and diverse. In the worst case, chronic stress can even be fatal. A comprehensive treatment plan is, therefore, vital.

At CALDA, we understand that the causes and effects of chronic stress are individually very different and complex. That’s why we choose to approach the treatment of chronic stress holistically.

Our tailor-made programs draw on effective and proven therapy methods from different specialist disciplines. We use scientifically based methods from classical medicine along with complementary medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and orthomolecular medicine. Every program is personalised to suit the individual and their unique circumstances.

Importantly, we treat the causes, not the symptoms, and we help you to understand the behaviours that led you to your chronic stressed state. Call our team now to find out more about our programs for chronic stress. We’d love to help you.


  1. Pindar J. 2023. Stress Statistics UK 2023. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]
  2. American Psychological Association. Oct 2022. Stress in America 2022. Press Release. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]
  3. Statista website. Jan 2022. Prevalence of anxiety, depression, and stress in selected European countries as of 2022. [Accessed online 05 Apr 2023]
  4. WHO. News Release. 02 Mar 2022. COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]
  5. Carmichael A, et al. 18 Aug 2022. Employee mental health and burnout in Asia: A time to act. McKinsey. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]
  6. Samara M, et al. 19 Nov 2020. Children’s prolonged exposure to the toxic stress of war trauma in the Middle East. BMJ 2020;371:m3155
  7. Jaret P. 20 Oct 2015. The Surprising Benefits of Stress. Greater Good Magazine. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]
  8. Liu YZ, et al. 20 Jun 2017. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Jun 20;11:316.
  9. Williamson L. 06 May 2021. Prenatal stress can program a child’s brain for later health issues. American Heart Association. [Accessed online 06 Apr 2023]