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How do you recognize chronic stress, and what effect does it have on your body?

6 min read
Cycle Care

Approved by

José Buik-Evers - Hormone specialist
Ellen de Groot - Orthomolecular/PNI therapist
Stress isn’t a bad thing! But it shouldn’t become a leading factor in your life, or get so intense that you experience severe stress symptoms. Severe symptoms can have grave consequences, such as depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, or a burn-out.

If you were to believe every Instagram post, then the sun is always shining, and everyone spends their days sipping cocktails while reclining next to an azure blue pool. Stress? No way! The reality isn’t so beautiful. Over 1 million people in the Netherlands struggle with long-term stress complaints. It’s not a surprise that people fall over in droves and end up in a burn-out or depression.

What is stress?

What exactly is stress? Everyone knows the feeling. You have the feeling that you cannot meet the demands of others or, what happens more often nowadays, the demands that you place on yourself (hello social media, GEN Z, and performance culture…!). Imagine a situation where you’re going on vacation, but haven’t made all of the arrangements just yet. Or when your work keeps piling up and your deadlines keep inching closer and closer!? But also don’t forget emotional stress, such as the kind that can arise from a divorce, a move, financial struggles, the passing of a loved one or the loss of your job. That is what stress is. In these situations, the burden is bigger than your strength to bear it.

Healthy stress and unhealthy stress

Nowadays, stress is often seen as the number one most common disease, and that might be true. Long-term stress is not good for you, since it has a hefty impact on your mental and physical wellbeing. But stress doesn’t always have to be unhealthy. Stress ensures that you function as well as possible in an emergency situation, such as in a moment of danger or exertion. Your blood pressure and heartbeat rise, and your breathing quickens. Your blood vessels contract. Your body produces adrenaline and cortisol, and you can feel it! You’re getting ready for the challenge that’s awaiting you.

Most times, you’ll be knackered after such a ‘stress moment’ and will have to recuperate a bit. You can certainly use this moment of recovery.

When you constantly feel rushed or under pressure, you have lost the ability to balance stress and recovery. In that case, we’re dealing with chronic stress, which is the kind of stress that’s unhealthy for you. Chronic stress usually has a negative effect on how you feel, which can have significant consequences.

What are the consequences of chronic stress?

Chronic stress has a negative effect on how your brain functions. Some parts of your brain, such as the hippocampus and the amygdala, can even be damaged, which has its own negative consequences. Think of memory problems, depression, or an anxiety disorder. You can also frequently be overcome with negative feelings and lethargy. A poorly functioning hippocampus causes your adrenal glands to produce more cortisol, amongst other things, which often results in a feeling of restlessness or agitation. That is because cortisol is a so-called stress hormone that is produced in the adrenal cortex as a response to a fear or stress stimulus. The production of cortisol happens at the expense of the production of other hormones, such as progesterone, which has a relaxing effect. Particularly in women over the age of 40, long-term stress can have a huge impact on their mood, since it lowers the progesterone levels even further.

Long-term stress can also cause specific physical conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias or an increased blood pressure, weight gain (usually around the waist) or weight loss, hair and skin issues such as acne, eczema and hair loss, and even menstruation issues and reduced fertility.

Adrenal fatigue or overload

The adrenal glands play a starring role in responding to stress and producing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. We’re aware of the fact that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It causes your body and mind to switch into a condition of alarm, which can be a welcome thing. But, if this alarm condition lasts too long, the adrenal glands continue to produce cortisol, which eventually leads to exhaustion. Cortisol is not just the 'stress hormone', it is also important for the maintenance of your immune system, stable blood pressure and a better hormonal balance. Your glucose, protein and fat metabolism can also be disrupted.

How do you know if you’re dealing with chronic stress?

In 2024, life is quite stressful for many of us with all the things we have to juggle. So, it is necessary to check in with yourself to see if you’re experiencing stress, since most of us are (unconsciously) struggling with it. If you often deal with the following physical and/or mental symptoms, you should consider the fact that you have prolonged intense stress:

  • headaches

  • nausea

  • stomach issues

  • dizziness

  • excessive sweating

  • increased heart rate and/or breathing

  • twitching (for example a twitching eyelid)

  • increased blood pressure

  • (chronic) hyperventilation

  • skin disorders

  • sleeping problems

  • fatigue

  • obsessive thoughts

  • forgetfulness

  • concentration issues

  • brooding

We often also start to behave differently when we’re under a lot of and/or long-term stress. Think of the following:

  • avoidance

  • aggression

  • eating too much/too little

  • being overly active

  • doing too many things at once

  • smoking more

  • drinking more

Often we (no longer) even notice that we’re dealing with long-term stress. We don’t recognize our body’s signals (any longer), or don’t pay attention to them enough. Or even worse, we just ignore them and eventually end up in a rut that frequently results in a burn-out. Below, we’ve created a checklist of questions you can ask yourself to determine if this is the case for you. If you’re ‘guilty’ of a few of these, this suggests that you have symptoms of long-term stress, even if you don’t feel physical complaints (yet).

  • Is it easy to fall asleep? That means, do you fall asleep fifteen minutes after you’ve gotten into bed and turned off the lights?

  • Do you sleep through the night, or do you wake up in the middle of it? If that’s the case, do you startle aware, or are your brains immediately ‘on’ and thinking about your day?

  • Do you wake up early, say at about 5 or 6 in the morning?

  • Do you suffer from restless legs or cramps/tingling in your legs?

  • Do you often feel rushed and/or restless? Are you always ‘on’?

  • What’s up with your concentration? Does it often occur that you walk upstairs to grab something, and forget what you meant to grab by the time you’ve made it up the stairs?

  • Do you suffer from mood swings? Of course, you can have an off-day, but be honest with yourself, do you usually have a short fuse?

  • Do you frequently feel down in the dumps? That’s fine for a day, but it can be a sign of something else if it happens for a longer period of time.

  • Do you suffer from heart palpitations? That doesn’t necessarily have to be a dangerous thing.

  • And how about when you’re finally relaxing? Can you wind down, or are you still thinking about everything on your to-do list?

And now what? What can you do about chronic stress?

The first step is becoming conscious of the fact that you’re struggling from chronic stress. After that, you can start reducing your stress levels. We’ll give you a few tips you can use to tackle this.

Exercise! Get your ass moving

Isn’t it just so nice to plop yourself down on the couch to binge yet another Netflix show? We get it. Relaxation is important, but the balance between excretion and recreation has to be good. Plenty of exercise truly helps to lower stress levels. Moderate exercise has a positive influence on your brain. Do you feel tired and exhausted? Then just go and move around a bit. You don’t immediately have to be in the gym 5 days a week (because that can cause additional stress) but do something that suits you and you can keep up doing for a long time. Go on walks, hog, exercise in a group, or try out yoga. Research shows that yoga certainly can help with depressive feelings.


Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night is one of the symptoms of (too much) stress. You can get tired, but falling asleep is a whole other beast! When stressed, your sleep system is confused by the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones keep you awake, while sleeping actually reduces stress. So how do you break this vicious cycle? A few tips.

  • Write down the things you’re worrying about, oftentimes, this will help you process these thoughts or get them off your mind.

  • Before going to bed at night, go on a walk. This will help you clear your head a bit more.

  • Put away your phone an hour before you go to bed. This also includes your TV, laptop, and iPad.

  • Don’t drink any caffeinated or alcoholic drinks at night, and don’t eat too late, either.

  • Avoid intense exercise later in the evening, since it’ll keep you up.

  • Make sure your room is dark and cool (around 18 degrees Celsius, though it’s even better to keep your window open for fresh air), this’ll make you sleep better.

  • Do you still lie awake at night? Get up and read a book or do something else that’s relaxing. Don’t keep tossing and turning. As soon as you feel tired again, you can dive back into your bed.

  • Try to avoid sleeping during the day.

  • Your lifestyle during the day is of influence to your night’s rest, which in turn is arranged by our biological clock. So, make sure you get enough daylight during the day by going outside or by placing your desk next to a window. Get up at the same time every day, and go to bed at a fixed time as much as possible in the evening.


Mindfulness contributes to reducing stress. It helps you to live in the now, and worry less about what is yet to come (or what already has been). It’s a great method you can use to tackle the things you’re dealing with. And that’s usually more than you think. Often, we’re concerned with the past or the future. And that’s exactly what mindfulness tries to avoid.

Want to know more about mindfulness? You can read an article about the effect of mindfulness on depressed, gloomy feelings here.

Do less

We’ve already mentioned it: we expect too much of ourselves nowadays. We can all benefit from taking a step back. Is it really necessary to meet all of those deadlines? Do you always want to be picture-perfect, or is it enough to just ‘be’? In short, try to ask yourself if everything you do is completely necessary. Hold onto your limits, and only do the things that make you happy. The to-do list in your head might just be shortened a bit. And that makes space for rest…

How you think about stress: become friends with stress

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal has analyzed various scientific research papers, and has concluded that how you think about stress can have an impact on your health. She says that, if you are truly convinced that stress actually helps you prepare for the challenge, stress does not have to have a negative effect on your health. Research has even shown that having this point of view doesn’t mean that your heart doesn’t beat faster in moments of stress, but that it does prevent your blood vessels from contracting. Helping others during moments that are stressful (for you) also has a positive effect. It makes people more resilient and is great for making people feel connected: you don’t have to do it all on your own. You’re creating an environment of courage.


We often forget this part. Vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins are the building blocks that our body requires. Especially in times of stress, your body needs these building materials. Think about it. If you go on holiday by car and are zooming along the German highway at 160 km per hour, you’re also sure to check in advance whether or not you have enough petrol, oil and coolant in the car. The same goes for your body. So, make sure that you’re eating properly. A varied diet full of building materials is what you need.

One of the substances that your body uses a lot when it’s experiencing stress is magnesium. For this reason, magnesium is also called the anti stress-mineral. It has a calming effect and relaxes the muscles and blood vessels, while calcium makes the muscles tense up. Magnesium also has a positive effect on the brain. It helps you sleep better. It has a regulating effect on the calcium, copper, zinc, potassium, and vitamin D levels in your body. Magnesium and calcium also maintain your body’s balance between tension and relaxation.

Up to 80% of the Western population has a magnesium deficiency. A magnesium deficiency can be supplemented with a healthy diet full of nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, avocado, dried figs, mackerel, green vegetables, and raw cocoa (so not a chocolate bar!). To supplement this, you can also take a good food supplement that contains magnesium. The best kinds to take are magnesium citrate, magnesium bisglycinate, and magnesium glycerophosphate, since these are absorbed by the body the best.

Want to know more about supplements? Read our article about how to choose the best dietary supplement, and be sure to ask for advice from an expert before you start taking supplements!


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