Acute vs. Chronic Stress: What’s the Difference?

Acute vs. Chronic Stress: What’s the Difference?

Do you suffer from headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, or high blood pressure? Do you feel physically under attack when you have to face an audience, when something goes wrong at work, or when you fight with family members? If so, you’re probably feeling stress.

In modern life, people face both acute stress and chronic stress, even in everyday situations. Our bodies are programmed to react by preparing the flight or flight response, which can only make things worse.

Read on to learn more about managing acute versus chronic stress.

Acute Stress

Acute stress starts with a trigger of some sort, also known as a stressor. In prehistoric times, this reaction would have helped a person fight off an enemy or flee from a predator. In today’s world, acute stress can be caused by anything from a natural disaster to an awkward social situation.

Acute stress leads to physical symptoms, including insomnia, tense muscles, and fatigue. It can also cause obsessiveness, short tempers, anxiety, impatience, or worry.

But sometimes acute stress provides benefits. Athletes and musicians may perform better under acute stress, and somebody under stress might focus better on work or stay alert during a job interview. Acute stress can also stimulate the immune system.

Chronic Stress

Unlike acute stress, chronic stress doesn’t go away. Suffering acute stress over and over can turn into chronic stress, and so can living with challenging conditions. Chronic stress example situations include pressure at work, health issues, poverty, or dysfunctional relationships.

Chronic stress symptoms can cause long-term damage, such as high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and addiction. Chronic stress leads to inflammation and exhausts the immune system. It also contributes to obesity since stressed people eat more, lose sleep, and avoid exercise.

Stress and Hormones

When something happens to cause you stress, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body for fight or flight. High cortisol levels can interfere with other brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Learning how stress affects your cortisol levels may help you understand and deal with the process of suffering from stress.

How to Relieve Stress

When something triggers your stress, your body prepares for flight or fight. If there’s no signal to say that the danger is passed, you’ll stay stressed. So you need to consciously move through the process of letting go of the stress.

In their recent book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe the stress cycle and how to move through it. If you had been saved from a truly dangerous situation, you might complete the stress cycle by crying, shaking with relief, or hugging others to celebrate. In daily life, you can complete the stress cycle by exercising, taking deep breaths, laughing, crying, or doing art.

Managing Acute Versus Chronic Stress

How you manage your stress depends on whether you’re dealing with acute versus chronic stress. You may be able to learn how to benefit from acute stress, while you should pay attention if chronic stress is affecting your health. Whatever stress you’re under, you can feel better eventually if you complete the stress cycle and move on.

If you enjoyed reading this, check out our blog for more articles on health.


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