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Feeling stressed at times is common and does not necessarily have a major impact on health, but high stress over a long period of time can lead to negative consequences. It is therefore important to seek help if you have prolonged stress.

What is long-term stress?

Prolonged stress is when a person has a high level of stress without sufficient recovery over a long period of time. It is different from acute stress, which is the body’s immediate response to a challenge or threat. According to research, job stress in Ireland has doubled.

We often feel good about being active and short-term stress is not dangerous to health if it is accompanied by recovery. However, long-term stress can have both physical and psychological consequences and is linked to a range of health problems.

If you have symptoms of prolonged stress, it is a good idea to seek help, also as a preventive measure, to avoid more serious problems.

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What happens in the body during prolonged stress?

Long-term stress activates several biological processes that can have negative effects on physical and psychological health. The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is a central system in the body that plays a crucial role in the stress response and the regulation of many bodily functions such as digestion, the immune system, mood and energy expenditure.

Among other things, it regulates cortisol and adrenaline, which are important hormones for managing activation and stress. Under prolonged stress, this biological function can become unbalanced, cortisol levels can remain high and there can be negative health consequences. Prolonged stress can increase the risk of heart problems such as heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. You may also experience neck, shoulder and back pain. You may also have problems with fertility and menstruation.

There are also other problems that can develop as a result of prolonged stress, including difficulty concentrating, anxiety and depression. Sleep disorders are also common. Fatigue syndrome is a consequence of prolonged stress and can take time to recover from. If you have many symptoms of long-term stress, it is important to seek help to break the pattern and improve your quality of life.

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Symptoms of long-term stress

If you know that you have been stressed for a long time, it is important to pay attention to your symptoms so that you can prevent further illness, but also to get help to break your patterns. Here are some symptoms that commonly occur:

  1. Emotional and mental symptoms: These can include anxiety, depression, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating, and a decreased sense of well-being.
  2. Physical symptoms: Prolonged stress can lead to headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach, fatigue, and sleep problems. It can also affect the immune system, making you more prone to infections.
  3. Behavioral changes: You may start overeating or eating less, drinking more alcohol or taking drugs, avoiding social contacts, and becoming less effective in everyday life at work, for example.
  4. Health problems: Long-term stress can include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Stress can also contribute to weight problems, skin problems like eczema, and gastrointestinal problems like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

Seek help if you have symptoms

To prevent more serious health problems and improve your quality of life, it is important to seek help if you have symptoms of long-term stress. It is possible to change behaviors and patterns and at Lavendla we have psychologists and therapists who can help.

What are the risks of long-term stress?

Long-term stress carries many risks that affect both physical and mental health. These range from cardiovascular disease to immune dysfunction and diabetes. You can also develop other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and sleep problems. Stress has a ripple effect and it is therefore important to seek help to break this pattern. Stress does not have to develop into fatigue syndrome or more severe illness; it can be changed and prevented.

Long-term and short-term stress

When we activate ourselves and focus our energy on something, we can experience a stress response. The evolutionary ‘fight and flight’ response kicks in, which we have been using since we lived on the savannah. The brain reacts to threats, but in today’s society we are rarely afraid of predators, but instead it may be that we have taken on too much at work, that we are afraid of failure or that we feel inadequate in other ways. The short-term stress is not dangerous but part of being human, but what can be problematic is if we live with the stress constantly for a long time. Then we are at high speed and initially it may work but in the long run it can cause severe symptoms. This is why it is so important to review how you live, what you value and how you can recover.

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Stress and fatigue syndrome

Fatigue syndrome is a condition that occurs after a prolonged period of sustained stress with insufficient recovery. It is a medical diagnosis and should initially be assessed by a doctor. A person who is exhausted feels extremely tired, and unable to cope with everyday life and responsibilities. This condition affects both physical and mental health and is common in situations where stressors are constant and prolonged, often in work environments but also in other life contexts. There are often multiple factors involved and recovery can be long, but it is possible to come back with the right treatment.

Managing stress – finding a balance between stress and recovery

To manage long-term stress, the first step is to become aware of the problem. For some, it becomes apparent when they reach exhaustion and can’t go to work, but it doesn’t have to go that far. Milder stress problems can also cause a reduction in quality of life and it is important to work on prevention as well.

If you have mild or moderate problems, you can seek help from a psychologist, where you can work with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to manage stress. This includes working with a stress diary to see how stress affects your daily life and various cognitive techniques to examine values and beliefs related to your behavior. They also work on learning how to manage emotions related to performance and setting boundaries. It also works on increasing restorative behaviors in everyday life.

Newer forms of CBT, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), can also be helpful for stress as it focuses a lot on what you value in life and mindfulness. There are also other mindfulness-based treatments such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is an evidence-based group treatment for managing stress and fatigue. If you have been diagnosed with fatigue, you often need to change your lifestyle quite a lot and be careful not to end up there again.

If you have more severe symptoms of stress, you should contact your health center and get an assessment from a doctor.

When should you consider a psychologist?

If you are experiencing too much stress in your life and it is affecting your health and well-being, it may be time to seek professional help. A psychologist can offer support and tools to manage your stress more effectively.

Remember, it is never too late to address stress. Your health and well-being should always be a priority, even if you are a person with high ambitions. If you feel the stress is too much, don’t hesitate to contact us for support and guidance.

12 questions and answers on prolonged stress

What is long-term stress?

Prolonged stress is when a person has a high level of stress without sufficient recovery over a long period of time.

How do you know if you are too stressed?

Signs of excessive stress can include feelings of overwhelm, irritability, decreased motivation or productivity, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and changes in sleep habits. Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, or stomach problems can also be indications of stress. If these symptoms affect your daily life, it is important to seek professional help.

I have trouble sleeping, is this a sign of stress?

Sleep problems are common if you are stressed, you may have trouble falling asleep or wake up at night worrying. It can also develop into a problem in itself, insomnia, which is a separate diagnosis, and can make stress worse, so it’s good to seek help as soon as possible if you have sleep problems.

What are the consequences of prolonged stress?

Long-term stress at work can lead to several negative health consequences, such as chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disease, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It can also affect the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. On a personal level, it can lead to problems in relationships and overall quality of life. Managing stress effectively is therefore crucial for both your physical and mental health.

What can I do if I am stressed?

If you feel that your stress is problematic, you can seek help from a psychologist or therapist for treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful, but there are also other methods. If you have severe symptoms, it is important that you seek help from a doctor.

What is the HPA axis?

The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is a central system in the body that plays a crucial role in the stress response and the regulation of many bodily functions such as digestion, the immune system, mood and energy expenditure. If you are stressed for a long time, this can become unbalanced.

What is the difference between long-term and short-term stress?

Short-term stress is our natural response to activation and is not dangerous, but what can become problematic is if you live with the stress constantly for a long time. Long-term stress is actually a lack of recovery.

Are there any effective relaxation techniques to deal with stress at work?

Yes, there are several relaxation techniques that can help manage stress at work. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness exercises are effective methods. Short walks or stretching during the day can also help. Some people find that listening to quiet music or practicing yoga can be relaxing. Experimenting with different techniques can help you find what works best for you.

What is the difference between stress and fatigue?

Prolonged stress can lead to fatigue syndrome, which is a separate diagnosis. It is a difficult condition that requires medical assessment, often sick leave and a longer recovery period. If you are exhausted, you often need to change your lifestyle.

Can you die from stress?

You don’t die from short-term stress, what can become a health risk is if you stress over a longer period of time. Actually, it is the lack of recovery that can be dangerous, but it can also be addressed.

Where can I seek help for long-term stress?

You can seek help from one of our licensed psychologists or therapists here at Lavendla. If you have more severe problems, you should seek contact with a doctor for assessment via, for example, your health center.

The way to a more stress-free life

Managing stress is important for improving both your physical and mental health. Here is a step-by-step list to help you or someone else manage long-term stress:

Identify the sources of stress

Start by identifying the specific factors that cause stress. It could be workload, time pressure, relationship problems, new parenthood or a combination of several factors.

Communicate openly

Talk to your loved ones about your symptoms. Expressing your concerns can take the pressure off and lead to solutions. If things don’t improve, seek professional help.

Take regular breaks

Make sure you take short breaks during the day to rest your brain and recover. A short walk or a few minutes of breathing exercises can make a big difference.

Create a healthy balance

Try to maintain a balance between work and leisure. Make sure you have time for relaxation and activities you enjoy outside of work.

Exercise and eat healthily

Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help reduce stress levels. Even short walks during lunch can be effective.

Learn relaxation techniques

Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation or yoga can help reduce stress and increase your ability to cope with work pressure.

Seek professional help if needed

If stress feels overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. This could be a psychologist, therapist or doctor for more severe problems.

It is important to explore different strategies to find what works best for you. Together with one of our therapists or psychologists, you can figure out what is right for you. It’s easy to book an initial consultation today.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.