When stress becomes excessive or chronic, meaning constant and persisting over a long period, it can have negative effects such as mood swings, fatigue, and emotional numbness.

Stress is a natural response to challenges and demands in daily life. Experiencing a moderate amount of stress is normal and can even be beneficial, as it can help motivate and focus attention.

However, excessive or chronic stress can negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. It can also affect a person’s behavior, potentially leading to social withdrawal, irritability, and a reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance misuse.

Learning to recognize and manage high stress levels is crucial for maintaining overall well-being and preventing these detrimental effects.

This article examines the signs and effects of chronic stress and offers tips for managing stress.

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Extreme stress can manifest in many ways, both mental and physical.

Mental signs

The mental indications that someone is experiencing extreme stress can include:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks: persistent feelings of dread, tension, or panic, which can escalate into panic attacks
  • Depression: prolonged sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Irritability and mood swings: frustration, moodiness, or a tendency to anger quickly
  • Memory and concentration problems: difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, and trouble with decision making and problem-solving
  • Behavioral changes: withdrawal from social activities, changes in job performance, and reliance on substances such as alcohol or drugs
  • Emotional numbness: a feeling of detachment or blunted emotions
  • Overwhelm: a feeling of being unable to cope with daily tasks, which leads to a sense of helplessness
  • Paranoia or excessive worrying: unreasonable fears about various aspects of life, such as health, finances, or relationships

Physical signs

Extreme stress levels and a person’s potential coping mechanisms may contribute to the following physical symptoms:

If a person does not address extreme stress, it can lead to chronic health conditions such as:

It can also affect a person’s quality of life, relationships, and job performance.

Effectively managing stress may involve a combination of lifestyle habits, self-care strategies, and professional support.

Possible strategies for managing stress levels include:

  • Getting regular physical activity: Exercise can improve mood, boost self-confidence, and help with relaxation. Activities such as walking, jogging, yoga, and swimming may benefit people with chronic stress.
  • Taking breaks from screens: Taking time away from social media and distressing news stories can help people manage stress.
  • Practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can reduce stress and improve mental health.
  • Getting adequate sleep: People should aim to get enough sleep. This may involve establishing a regular sleep schedule and creating a restful environment free from distractions such as electronics.
  • Maintaining a balanced diet: It can be beneficial to eat a nutritious, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.
  • Trying time management strategies: If possible, a person can try to organize their schedule to reduce overwhelm. They might break down large tasks into smaller steps or create to-do lists to prioritize the most important tasks.
  • Limiting stimulant use: It can be helpful to reduce or eliminate the use of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, if a person uses them, as these substances can worsen stress and anxiety.
  • Seeking professional help: If a person finds their stress overwhelming, they can consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A professional can provide counseling or therapy to help people learn coping mechanisms.

Recognizing and addressing extreme stress is essential. Stress management might involve lifestyle changes, stress-reducing activities, and professional help such as therapy or counseling.

Personal support systems, including family and friends, are also crucial for providing emotional support and relieving stress.

A person should consult a doctor if they are experiencing continuous or severe symptoms of stress, such as chronic headaches, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and frequent illnesses.

If someone has tried different stress management techniques without success or if their stress feels overwhelming, a doctor can provide additional strategies or treatment options.

Excessive or chronic stress can contribute to emotional changes and health conditions such as heart attack, stroke, and sleep disorders.

A person can help reduce the risk of these effects by learning to recognize the signs of chronic stress and taking steps to manage it. This may include engaging in relaxation techniques; seeking support from friends, family, or professionals; and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Healthcare professionals can offer valuable support, resources, and treatment options to help people manage stress effectively.