Chronic Stress & Anxiety: Recognising The Symptoms

A study by Bloomberg found that the South African population is the second most stressed in the world. Chronic stress and anxiety symptoms are often ignored or left untreated by sufferers who think that it’s simply the result of life’s daily grind.

However, recognising these symptoms is an important step in getting help or making the lifestyle changes you need to avoid a complete burnout or to reduce the risk of developing a mental illness like depression or a physical condition like high blood pressure.

Understanding the difference between acute and chronic stress and anxiety

Stress is the result of multiple and often overwhelming demands exerted on an individual from his or her environment. This inhibits your ability to cope and, as a result, you experience anxiety (the reaction to stress) so the two go hand-in-hand. There is a difference between acute and chronic stress and anxiety.

Everybody experiences some degree of stress. This is a natural reaction to environmental stressors like getting into an argument with your partner or having a minor car accident.  The hypothalamus in the brain sends signals to the nervous system and kidneys, which in turn releases stress hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol.

Acute stress is short-term and the body is able to recover quite quickly from the sudden increase in your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction where you either face up to the stressor or flee from it – depending on your natural instinct for survival. Chronic stress however has a long-term effect (lasting for at least six months) and, after a while, your body begins to take serious strain from the undue pressure placed on it. This can result in a number of physical, mental or emotional symptoms.

What causes chronic stress and anxiety?

There are a number of reasons why people experience chronic stress and anxiety. What’s important to remember is that everyone is different and has a unique reaction to stressors. Some common causes are personal problems like negative relationships, social implications like major life changes (a death in the family or a home move) or occupational demands like working in a high-risk environment.

Symptoms of stress and anxiety

The severity and frequency of these symptoms will depend on your own personal resilience, coping mechanisms, support network or the length of time that you’ve been experiencing the stress and anxiety:

Some of the physical symptoms experienced may be:

    ● Increased heart rate
    ● Elevated blood pressure
    ● Breathing difficulties such as shortness of breath
    ● Headaches
    ● Digestive problems like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or heartburn
    ● Sleep irregularities like insomnia
    ● Acne and other skin problems
    ● Dizziness or trembling
    ● Muscle tension
    ● Excessive weight gain or loss
    ● Low libido
    ● A run-down immune system that can lead to colds and flu or other infections


    Not all stress and anxiety symptoms are visible. Many sufferers experience debilitating sensations or mental challenges that can occur in episodes like a panic attack, which is a disabling reaction to anxiety, or through persistent psychological restrictions.

    Some of these mental and emotional symptoms may be:

      ● Extended periods of unexplained sadness or irritability
      ● Inability to concentrate
      ● Unwarranted feelings of anger or fear
      ● Social withdrawal and lack of interest
      ● Unreasonable behaviour like a lack of impulse control
      ● Substance abuse as a means of self-medication


    It’s not uncommon for a person suffering from the effects of chronic stress and anxiety to undergo a drastic personality change. A once outgoing, optimistic, intelligent and compassionate individual can become withdrawn, frightened, pessimistic, short-tempered and seemingly uncaring. In some instances the sufferer might even consider self-harming themselves if they feel so despondent or at a complete loss about what to do.

    There are a number of ways to deal with stress and anxiety once you’re able to recognise the symptoms.

    1.Identify the cause and make changes

    The most proactive step to combating chronic stress and anxiety is to recognise your stressor and to manage this effectively. This will involve reducing or avoiding the stressor through purposeful techniques. If you have a demanding work schedule then take steps to manage your time more effectively or speak with your manager about your concerns (asking for help is an empowering tool). 

    It also helps to adopt strategies or utilise resources that will assist your stress management like learning to communicate better, reframing a problem so that it doesn’t appear so daunting or looking at a situation from a constructive perspective.

    2. Leading a healthy lifestyle

    Adopting a healthy lifestyle like getting plenty of exercise and following a nutritious diet will go a long way in reducing your stress and anxiety levels. You could also practise helpful relaxation techniques like meditation or breathing exercises to provide you with the focus to tackle your problems in a positive manner. Maintain a good social life or connection with others and be mindful of any negative or unhealthy coping mechanisms you may have developed like smoking or overindulging with alcohol or caffeine.

    3. Seeking professional help

    In some instances it may be necessary to visit a mental health care professional like a psychiatrist or psychologist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who diagnoses mental health conditions and prescribes medication. A psychologist is a counselling specialist who diagnoses mental health conditions and treats these through therapeutic counselling techniques. Following an evaluation and diagnosis, you may be prescribed either medication or therapy, or a combination of both, to help you deal with your condition.

    How you can help others

    If you believe that a family member, loved one or work colleague may be suffering from chronic stress and anxiety, you can help them by drawing their attention to your concerns. Offer them reassurance and educational information about the subject. Don’t be patronising or impatient as this is not something that they can simply snap out of. Encourage proactive behaviour and, if necessary, help them take the necessary steps to ensure their wellness by providing support resources.

    Topmed encourages a healthy lifestyle that promotes good mental health. Taking steps to combat chronic stress and anxiety are some recommendations that we advocate for improved wellness. Contact us if you need any medical tips or advice and sign-up for medical cover with Topmed for you and your family.


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