Acute vs Chronic Stress

When we perceive a threat (stress), our nervous system releases chemicals and hormones that prepare our body for the “flight-or-fight” response. While acute stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as it prepares us to respond to a specific situation, chronic stress doesn’t allow our body to recover after such response. And this can negatively affect our health at the end of the day. In other words, excessive or chronic stress may harm our mental and physical health and, paradoxically, limit our ability to react.

Acute Stress

This type of stress results from pressures and demands of a specific situation and it is the most common form of stress. Almost being robbed in the street will put your stress hormones at work: your muscles will become tense; you will become hyper-focused and hyperaware of your surroundings and your heart will be pounding in your throat.

In other words, short-term stress is useful as it sends a signal to our body to pump stress hormones (Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine) which prepare us for the “flight-or-fight” response.

Adrenaline and Norepinephrine are hormones largely responsible for the immediate reactions when we feel stressed while cortisol takes a little more time to kick in (minutes rather than seconds). However, cortisol helps maintain blood pressure and fluid balance while our body is responding to stress and can be life-saving in acutely stressful situations. 

But excessive acute stress can cause both psychological and physical distress. Some of the most common symptoms of acute stress include:

-          emotional distress: irritability, tension, anxiety or depression

-          physical symptoms: upset stomach, back pain, tension headache, migraine headaches, increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeats end heart palpitations, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath and more.

Although unpleasant, acute stress is short-term and therefore doesn’t have enough time to seriously damage your health. It is also a highly treatable and manageable condition.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress develops when you are repeatedly exposed to situations that provoke the release of stress hormones, like constant pressure at work or ongoing marriage problems. When you are constantly exposed to stress, your body continuously releases cortisol. Many experts believe that our stress response system was not created to tolerate constant stress. In other words, too much cortisol can lead to serious health issues: the never-ending demands and pressures of chronic stress wear you away continuously, causing damage to your body and mind. Moreover, some chronic stresses such as growing up in a dysfunctional family or being exposed to neglect and abuse can become internalized and affect a personality for life.

 The most common symptoms of chronic stress are:

-               Emotional: inability to relax, irritability, agitation, moodiness, constant worrying, feeling overwhelmed, sense of isolation and loneliness

-               Cognitive: difficulty focusing, negative thoughts, anxious ruminations, forgetfulness

-               Psychological/physical: chronic fatigue, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tension and stiffness in muscles, loss or gain in weight, high or low blood sugar weakened the immune system, obesity, reduced libido and more.

Chronic stress occurs when our body doesn’t have time to recover from repeated acute stress situations. It weakens our coping resources, ultimately resulting in mental health problems and chronic illness. Moreover, chronic stress kills people through a stroke, heart attack, violence, and suicide. Recent research even associates exposure to chronic stress with cancer. However, the symptoms of chronic stress are manageable and treatable, as long as we recognize the warning signs on time.