By Natasha Persaud

Are you chronically stressed? Spotting the signs and symptoms of chronic stress is the first step toward getting relief.

Stress Image - Masterfile

It's normal to feel anxious under certain circumstances, such as when you're moving to a new house or someone is trying to swipe your wallet. Psychological and physiological arousal puts you on guard and on alert, and helps you take action to get out of danger. However, if you're experiencing free-floating anxiety, tension or pressure that's interfering with your life, you may be chronically stressed.

Chronic stress is a diagnosable medical condition that often requires medical attention, says Esther Sternberg, M.D., chief of the Section on Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and director of the NIMH's Integrative Neural Immune Program. Here, we asked her to explain the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and what strategies can relieve it. After all, we may be experts in getting stressed, but most of us are not experts in getting out of it.

What is chronic stress?

There are two types of stress, says Dr. Sternberg: acute and chronic. With the former, your body gives you a shot of energy in response to an immediate threat. This is what happens when you're driving down the street and suddenly a child comes out of nowhere; your body's fight-or-flight response kicks in and gives you the ability to put your foot on the brake in milliseconds, often without you consciously realizing it. "Your brain initiates a cascade of hormone signals that prompt the release of two powerful hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into your bloodstream, which work to give your body the burst of energy you need to react," says Dr. Sternberg.

On the other hand, with chronic stress, your body's stress response gets stuck in either an "on" or "off" position. The stress response that should give you energy only when you need it either churns constantly, causing physiological burnout, or else has little to no effect.

Chronic stress occurs when a stressful event goes on too long: You're a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer's disease, for example, or you're a mother taking care of children and elderly parents, or you have a difficult and demanding job.

You can be chronically stressed even when the event is no longer happening. A good example is grief. If you lose a loved one, and six months after the death you're still experiencing all the same emotions of sadness and despair, then you may have developed chronic stress and perhaps even depression.

Another classic example is posttraumatic stress disorder: In that condition, one's memory of the stressful event doesn't go away, so every time sufferers experience even a tiny part of that stressful event or a reminder of it, they have a full-blown stress response as if it were happening right then.

How do I know if I'm chronically stressed?

Chronic stress can produce a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms, Dr. Sternberg points out. These include:

  • no longer feeling in control of your own emotions
  • no longer performing at the same level
  • feeling lonely, isolated, angry or anxious
  • having trouble making decisions
  • and having memory lapses and a shortened attention span.

You might experience physical effects as well. These include: taking longer than usual, getting sick more frequently and/or staying ill longer. Your body may also produce fewer antibodies, so if you were recently vaccinated, for example against the flu, you're more likely to become ill.

How you react depends in part, on your perception of the situation: "Your brain's ability to respond to an event is determined by your own set of personal experiences and your belief as to whether that event is stressful or not," says Dr. Sternberg. "Some events are stressful for everyone, such as moving or the loss of a loved one. Others, such as being stuck in traffic day after day, will differ depending on how you perceive the event."

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 11 Apr 2011

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015