Cumulative stress is one of the most underrated modern enemies, but one that can do us the most damage. It usually grows slowly, hidden behind obligations and daily rush, so that when we become aware of its presence it is usually too late because its ramifications have come to affect our health and have emotionally unbalanced us.
In fact, a study conducted at Yale University revealed that continually exposing ourselves to stressful situations can cause changes at the brain level that, in the long run, end up increasing our vulnerability to stress. Researchers from the University of California also found that cumulative stress increases our tendency to impulsivity, which causes us to make worse decisions and get into more problems. As a result, we are plunged into a stressful vicious cycle as we watch with some amazement and helplessness as tension and psychological anguish build up in our lives.
What is cumulative stress and how is it produced?
Stress is a natural response of the mind and body to a situation that we perceive as threatening or challenging and for which we do not have the necessary coping resources. In fact, there are different types of stress and they are all not negative. Eustress, for example, can give us an extra dose of energy to deal with a new and challenging situation by helping us mobilize all our resources to react quickly and efficiently.
However, when we do not release stress, but it is maintained over time, it becomes cumulative stress. This type of stress is usually produced by the accumulation of small situations that generate discomfort and emotional tension, such as a large sustained workload, family or couple conflicts that are not resolved, personal frustrations that drag on for years or any other type of circumstances in which we feel powerless or limited.
However, cumulative stress can also be the result of specific situations that generate great anguish and that have occurred relatively close in time, so that we have not had enough time to recover from its impact. Such is the case of the death of a close person, the loss of a job, a couple breakdown or the failure of a professional project. When these factors come together over time, it is normal for stress to accumulate and destabilize us.
It is worth clarifying that situations that generate stress do not always have a negative imprint. For example, the arrival of a child, going to live with your partner or moving to another city are positive changes that also bring a share of uncertainty or anxiety, so they can contribute to cumulative stress.
The main symptoms of cumulative stress
What may be stressful and distressing for one person may not necessarily be so for another. It all depends on individual perception, the degree to which we feel threatened, and the control we have over the circumstances. In fact, the most stressful thing for most people is often feeling like they can’t control the situation.
Obviously, when we are faced with extreme situations, such as a natural disaster or the loss of a loved one, it is easy to realize that we are stressed and distraught. Instead, cumulative stress gradually increases, so that we do not always realize that we are undergoing great physical and mental exhaustion.
However, stress always triggers a series of physiological responses mediated by the autonomic nervous system that ends up affecting our emotional stability and triggers physical signs. When we experience one stressful situation after another, our mind and body have no chance to recover and are forced to work hard to meet the next challenge. This reduces our coping resources and increases the risk of somatization.
Therefore, stress can manifest itself in the body in different ways. It can cause anything from nausea, dizziness and gastrointestinal problems to muscle tension, emotional headache, sleep disorders or skin problems and hair loss. In fact, we cannot forget that “The prolonged increase in cortisol, the main biomarker of stress, is associated with a deterioration in physical and cognitive health,” as Yale University researchers pointed out.
From a psychological point of view, chronic anger, sudden mood swings, irritability, frustration, and the feeling of continually being overwhelmed are some of the most obvious symptoms of stress.
However, cumulative stress can be detected much earlier by paying attention to other more subtle signs that we normally overlook, such as a feeling of permanent fatigue, even as soon as we wake up in the morning. The feeling of apathy or emptiness are other premonitory signs of cumulative stress. Exaggerated responses to the slightest setback, trouble concentrating, loss of motivation, or even mental breakdown are other signs of stress in its early stages.
How to prevent cumulative stress?
The good news is that cumulative stress is avoidable and reversible. For this, we need to start from self-knowledge. We need to be aware of our physical and psychological resources, as well as our limits. Only then can we implement the most appropriate coping strategies according to circumstances.
We also need to learn to structure our day to day so that we make room for rest, disconnection and relaxation, since those moments are what allow us to recharge our emotional battery and prevent stress from accumulating to a harmful point.
Of course, we also need to set limits and learn to say “no.” We need to learn not to overload ourselves with tasks and obligations that do not correspond to us or that are not relevant, because they will end up adding tension to the daily stress. But above all, we need to learn to say “enough” and take the time we need. We need to learn to take care of ourselves, and take it seriously.
McMullin, S. D. et. Al. (2020) Cumulative lifetime stress exposure predicts greater impulsivity and addictive behaviors. J Health Psychol; 9: 1359105320937055.
Levy, B. R. et. Al. (2016) Buffer against cumulative stress: Positive age self-stereotypes predict lower cortisol across 30 years. GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry; 29(3): 141–146.
Seo, D. et. Al. (2014) Cumulative Adversity Sensitizes Neural Response to Acute Stress: Association with Health Symptom. Neuropsychopharmacology; 39: 670–680.