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Understanding Chronic Stress

By Shatyra Williams, MSW, RSW

The word ‘Stress’ is a well known term that many of us use loosely to describe a variety of unpleasant feelings including frustration, irritation, pressure, tension, or worry. The truth is, ongoing stress also known as chronic stress can have very serious effects on your health and wellbeing.

When facing unavoidable situations such as bumper to bumper traffic, demands of parenting, career responsibilities, financial burdens, health concerns, and many others, it is nearly impossible to avoid stressful encounters.

The good news is: there are many ways to cope with the stress of everyday living; but before we can begin to cope, we need to understand what exactly stress is.

One way to understand Stress is by seeing it as an outside force – using the term “stressor”. Stressors are the people, places, or things that cause a sense of high pressure or place high demands upon you. You may consider your job to be a major stressor in your life, or perhaps your rebellious child, or maybe your neighbourhood, school, or family (environments) can be considered a source of stress to you. Stressors are what you identify as causing you to feel stressed.

Stress and Your Body

Another way of understanding the term stress is to look at the physical experience of being stressed. Your body’s physical response to stress is most classically understood through the terms ‘Fight of Flight’. When there is a sense of threat to your wellbeing, your body responds by increasing blood flow and releasing stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol). This boost of energy prepares your body to either fight off a threat or flee from a threat. The physical stress response includes: increased blood pressure, slowed digestion, increased rate of respiration, and constriction of blood vessels to name a few.

Long Term Effects

When stress remains present long term, our bodies adapt by switching to a lower level of the stress response described above. This chronic stress response prevents the body from being at rest. The ongoing inability to relax can cause many people to feel highly anxious and may result in a variety of physical ailments, including:  suppressed immune system, hypertension, sexual dysfunction, headaches, back aches, physical tension, ulcers, muscle spasms, digestive problems, liver malfunctioning, and an overall sense of exhaustion.  

Your Wellness

Despite all of the physical strain caused by chronic stress, your body continues to seek homeostasis – also known as inner balance or smooth functioning. To help your body return to its normal rhythm, the stressors in your life must be addressed.

Each of us is made up of a combination of genetics which influence our temperament – this includes how we react and respond to stressors in our life. In addition to our innate personality characteristics, we also carry habits, learned behaviours, and ways of thinking that we have adopted from our environments. Regardless of your age, gender, race, or situation, there are healthy coping strategies that can meet your needs. If you find that you are unable to cope with the stressors in your life, it is important to address the problem right away. The longer your body remains in ‘stress mode’ the more your wellness deteriorates.

Tapping into your existing skill set will help you to manage the stress in your life. We each possess unique strengths that were instilled in us for this exact reason: to help us adapt to our world. Stress is a part of life but chronic stress does not have to be.

Connect with a Therapist

Discover whether a Therapist can assist you with your stress. Speaking with someone is often the fist step towards taking action towards lifestyle change.

Join a Support Group

Recognizing that you are not alone can help you to better cope with some of life's challenges. Sharing your story with others can be an instant stress relief. A support system is an absolute essential to living a healthy lifestyle.

Learn more about RWRJ's resources for women.

About the Author

Shatyra Williams MSW, RSW is a Toronto-based Social Worker with a passion for women's wellness. As Program Manager of RWRJ's Artistic Healing Group, Shatyra teaches healthy coping strategies to women survivors of trauma. Through a variety of creative educational techniques Shatyra helps women to challenge themselves, to embrace their imperfections, and to love their journey. 


2007, Blonna, R. Coping with Stress in a Changing World, Fourth Ed.

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