Stress, defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” can have numerous positive and negative effects on our mental and physical health.
To understand our own levels of stress, and whether they are likely to help or hinder our life, it’s helpful to understand the three different types: acute, episodic acute and chronic/traumatic stress.
Acute stress typically comes from a short-term source (such as an impending test or important meeting). Episodic acute stress occurs when acute stress compounds into a harmful, repetitive pattern and chronic/traumatic stress develops when people’s stress grows so constant, overwhelming and inescapable that it can become too much to bear.
Some levels of stress can be good for us, but most of us are more familiar with the harmful side of stress. So how do we tell the difference?
By understanding the kinds of stress we encounter in our daily lives, we may be better equipped to handle the various challenges and demands that come our way. Let’s begin:
Acute stress is the most common form of stress, and is typically a response to a perceived/potential threat that puts our well being in danger. Acute stress is most often helpful, for it keeps us alert, focused and energized. This type of stress is short term, such as in response to a looming deadline or an important presentation, and often resolves quickly after the perceived “danger” subsides.
While this is actually a manifestation of our fight or flight response, many of us separate the two because we associate fight or flight with our ancestral need to fight off danger (predators, rival tribes etc.) rather than with the comparatively tame stressors of modern life.
In reality, the two are identical, and by understanding the physical and emotional causes and effects of our fight or flight response, we are far better able to process acute stressors.
Whether we are battling mortal danger or anxiously worrying about a performance review at work, our body’s reaction is actually very similar. In response to the acute stressor, our sympathetic nervous system gets to work, quickly stimulating the flow of adrenaline, noradrenaline and most famously, cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
This is our body’s signal to prepare to “fight” or take “flight” from the stressor, and is accompanied by an increase in heart rate. If you’ve recently been in a high-stress situation, these telltale acute symptoms might also sound familiar: pale or flushed skin, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat and even stomach discomfort.
But why do we experience these sudden symptoms of stress? Wouldn’t they actually make it harder to be successful? The truth is, no. As worried as our body’s stress reaction might make us feel, it is actually designed to prime your body to encounter the stressful situation successfully.
In fact, studies have consistently shown that the sympathetic fight or flight reaction actually makes you more likely to think quickly, clearly and effectively (which is especially useful in dire circumstances). This allows you to make a quick assessment of the situation, decide how to best conquer or avoid your stressor and then take action.
In most of our daily lives, our acute stressors are manageable and conquerable. In fact, many of us find great satisfaction, and even happiness, in overcoming stressful situations such as competitions, performances and presentations.
This is what makes acute stress potentially, and often, beneficial to our lives. It can give us a sense of purpose, meaning and pride that inspires us to take on tomorrow.
Episodic acute stress occurs when people experience stressful crises on a constant basis.
Typically, the events that cause the stress are linked or part of a pattern, such as in a job or relationship. It is this type of ritual stress that can send our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, making us feel “stressed out.”
Unlike our previous examples, such as conquering a predator or preparing for a single presentation at work, episodic stressors often linger or repeat themselves. The fight or flight reaction isn’t as helpful here, as our body sends all the hormones necessary to solve the stressor, but we are then unable to conquer the stressor or prevent it from recurring.
If not resolved, this cyclical pattern can lead to a number of negative outcomes such as chronic stress and a higher likelihood of substance abuse, depression and anxiety.
If you’re surprised by this disturbing information, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer the pains of episodic acute stress without even realizing the source of their problem or the science behind it.
To get a true sense of why repeated stress can be so harmful, it’s important to also understand cortisol, a glucocorticoid produced in the adrenal glands as a response to stress.
As an ally of the fight or flight response, cortisol is excellent for supplying our body with energy in a singular stressful situation. It floods our muscles with immediate energy, helping us reserve the power and focus necessary to conquer the acute stressor.
The problem is, cortisol is only designed to work in standalone stressful situations, not as a long term solution. Thankfully, episodic acute stress can often be managed, or sometimes even avoided, by taking concentrated, purposeful steps to healthily address the stressors.
But what happens when this isn’t possible, and our stress starts to feel permanent?
Chronic (or traumatic) stress wears on the body over a period of months, years or even decades. Its drain on our mind and body are unrelenting, often leading to a host of mental and physical health problems including shorter life expectancy.
The sources of chronic stress can be extremely personal (traumatic childhood) or more global in scale (racial tensions, war), but no matter what the source they have an extremely deleterious effect on the sufferer.
Extremely high and persistent levels of stress hormones, and the negative effects that they cause, can zap the person of energy, motivation or hope. This can cause people to blame themselves, or even give up on ever solving the source of their stress.
With an even higher propensity for addiction, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, sufferers of chronic stress might even begin to create further problems for themselves, regardless of whether they exist. People in this group may struggle to get out of bed in the morning for fears that they will only make things worse.
As high cortisol levels in chronic stress sufferers linger, they become far more likely to suffer numerous health issues including:
Fortunately, there are a number of practical and economical ways of actively managing and reducing chronic stress.
Here are a few tips for managing stress in your life: