Everyone experiences stress from time to time. When it becomes chronic, it can affect your mental health.

While we all feel stress from time to time, when it’s long lasting or chronic, it may begin to affect our mental health.

When stress interferes with your everyday life and causes you to stop doing the things that you love, consider acting to take care of yourself and your future health.

Though stress can be challenging to deal with, many things are within your control to help minimize and manage stress.

Stress can cause psychological and emotional distress. When it becomes chronic, it can increase your risk for anxiety and depression.

Experiencing long-term stressful situations, like caregiving, without stress management efforts can lead to emotional overwhelm and burnout.

Chronic stress can have negative effects on your body and mind and create a multitude of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. For example, it can cause tension, leading to muscle pain and headaches, or memory issues.

Mental health conditions that may be linked to stress include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • substance use difficulties
  • sleep issues
  • chronic pain

How do our bodies respond to stress and why does chronic stress often lead to some mental health conditions? Scientists have started to find biological answers.

Within seconds of perceiving a stressor, the brain signals serotonin and adrenaline to be released. Those chemicals are quickly followed by stress hormones, which impact regulate areas of the brain important for memory and regulating emotions.

When facing danger, the body engages the fight, flight, or freeze response. While this works well when running away from a tiger, it’s less effective for chronic stress like an endlessly demanding job. Over time this stress response can wear you down, mentally and physically.

A study reports that chronic stress is linked to changes in certain areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. This has the potential to cause cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes.

Stress can also be associated with changes in your gut, which can also influence your mood. Chronic stress can also make it harder to get pregnant and dampen sex drive.

All of those physical symptoms can lead to increase stress.

What causes stress for one person may be different for another. Stress often happens if you feel high pressure or are trying to meet a deadline. It can also arise if there’s a threat to your health or relationships, or if you don’t have enough resources to answer all the demands of your life.

Mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression may make some people feel more easily stressed than others.

Common causes of stress include:

  • money
  • work
  • relationships
  • health problems
  • job stability
  • family responsibilities
  • life changes
  • poor sleep or diet
  • a history of trauma

The symptoms you experience when stressed can manifest in the way you think and how you feel emotionally. Stress can also show up physically or in your behavior. Because everyone experiences stress differently, symptoms may vary from person to person and range from mild to severe.

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • irritability
  • moodiness
  • feeling anxious
  • nervousness
  • feeling sad or depressed
  • anger
  • low self-confidence

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • headaches
  • muscle pain
  • insomnia
  • digestive issues
  • skin rashes and acne
  • fatigue
  • lack of energy
  • low sex drive and reproductive issues

Behavioral symptoms of stress include:

  • changes in eating habits
  • crying more often than usual
  • social withdrawal
  • changes in sex drive
  • increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other substances

There are many ways you can take charge of your stress. Here are some ideas to cope better with the stress you’re faced with and improve how your body and brain respond to stressors.

Stay active and exercise regularly

Just 20 minutes outdoors can help lower stress hormone levels, according to a study. If you want to get the most out of your walk and reap all of the benefits, then try walking in nature.

Explore relaxation techniques

Your breath is an effective stress reliever that’s easily accessible.

Deep breathing techniques, such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique, are designed to bring your body to a relaxing state. They’re great to use in times of high stress.

To try this method, sit comfortably and breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds.

Progressive muscle relaxation can also help. This involves tensing and then relaxing the muscle groups throughout your body to relieve tension.

Slow down and prioritize

Life can be busy and sometimes it’s hard to say no to things, even though you know the added commitment may stress you out. Take time to slow down and prioritize. Think about what needs to get done, what can wait, what you can ask for help on, and what just doesn’t need to be done.

You can also try managing feelings of overwhelm by breaking larger tasks into smaller, easier tasks.

Setting healthy boundaries with others and yourself can also help you manage stress better.

Connect with others

A strong support system of people you trust, feel safe with, and are supported by can get you through tough times. A community is also great for strengthening your mental health and preventing side effects from stress.

Sharing your feelings or concerns can help you let off some steam, which may reduce your feelings of isolation. Also, others that aren’t as close to your situation might be able to think of solutions you haven’t thought of yet.

Talk with a therapist

If you feel stressed more often than you’re not, it may help to talk with your doctor or mental health professional.

If stress is affecting your life or relationships, a good therapist can help you find the appropriate treatment for your specific symptoms.

Consider looking for a therapist that integrates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques into their practice. CBT is proven to help with anxiety, trauma, and depression.

Want to learn more about starting therapy? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

You can read more about healthy ways to cope with stress here.

Chronic stress can affect your mental health. But you have the power to learn how to cope effectively — even if you can’t change the stressful situation.

Getting better at managing stress involves looking after your mental health and learning effective coping skills. Consider taking a walk, breathing, or tapping into CBT techniques.