What is the difference between Acute and Chronic stress?

Updated: May 12

by Alexa Hanshaw and Irish Doton

acute vs chronic stress

What do you think of when you hear the term Chronic or Acute stress?


It sounds like the same thing, doesn't it?


Stress is our body's reaction to stressors. Many different situations and life events can be stressors. Stress is often triggered when we experience something new, unexpected, or events that threaten our sense of self. Another common situation is when you feel like you have little control over a situation.


What happens to your body when you hear the word stress?

Typically humans don't respond to the word "stress" positively; our mind tends to think negative thoughts automatically. But it's not always bad—not all stress is created equally. Stress can have a positive effect on us; when utilized properly, it can help you sharpen your focus.


Contents:

1. Acute Stress

2. Chronic Stress

3. How can you avoid stress?



1. Acute stress

Acute stress is short-term stress. You can think of it as the immediate stress reaction your body has during or just after a stressor. This is the moment your shoulders start to creep up towards your ears when you are sitting in traffic but dissipates once the road opens up again. Studies have shown that a little bit of stress is good for you. Our body's response to acute stress can build resilience.

Some causes of acute stress:

  • Getting stuck in a traffic jam

  • Doing a job interview

  • A sudden call from your boss

  • Pop quiz at school

Acute stress symptoms may include:

  • Increase in blood pressure

  • Increase in heart rate

  • Muscle tension

  • Rapid Breathing

  • Sweating

This is your body's ancestral response and is meant to keep us safe. It is our body's way of preparing to run away from saber tooth tigers.


2. Chronic stress

Chronic stress is long-term stress that settles in your system due to extended exposure to constant stressors without resetting your system or closing the stress loop. Chronic stress is different from acute stress because chronic stress is sustained over long periods, sometimes years.

Some causes of chronic stress:

  • Financial Difficulties

  • Death of a loved one

  • Divorce / Marriage Problems

  • Health Problems

  • Work stress


The physiological reactions to acute stress and chronic stress are the same. Increased heart rate, muscle tension, and increased blood pressure. But long-term chronic stress may also manifest like the below.


Chronic stress symptoms may include ( from Yale Medicine ) :

  • Aches and pains

  • Insomnia

  • Change in social behavior

  • Low energy

  • Cloudy thinking

  • Change in appetite

  • Increased alcohol or drug use

  • Change in emotional responses to others

  • Emotional withdrawal


When you're in a chronic state of stress, your body has to constantly work harder to keep it at your resting or normal state. You'll notice that your heart rate beats a little bit faster and what goes unseen is all the extra inflammation in your body. You might start to notice, or your doctor tells you, your once average blood pressure and heart rate find a new higher 'normal’. And over the long run, this can lead to depression, heart disease, and diabetes. A lot of chronic illnesses can stem from chronic stress due to the chronically elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension in your body.



3. How can you avoid stress?

The best way to manage stress doesn't involve a magical wand, getting rid of all stressors because in life, that simply isn't an option. The simple truth is that no one has a perfect life, not even the influencers behind the most manicured social media feeds.


Here are some ideas you can do to manage your daily stressors and finish the stress cycle:

  1. Exercise Daily

  2. Set aside time for yourself

  3. Practice breathwork and meditation

  4. Practicing Mindfulness

  5. Seek help from a stress relief coach

  6. Practice healthy eating habits

  7. Get enough sleep

  8. Manage your time well

  9. Stop worrying over trivial things (will this matter in 6 months or a year from now?)

  10. Let go of the things you have no control over

  11. Join a stress management group/community

Bottom line

A key difference between good and bad stress is how long your body thinks you are stressed (or reworded how long your body thinks you are in danger). Chronic physiological stress responses are the hounding, nagging, unrelenting kind that may give you health problems. On the other hand, acute stress or point-in-time stressors can support a productive and motivating day!


Start to build lifestyle habits that can help you positively react to acute stress, so you don't get to that chronic stress stage (build your stress toolbox, y'all). If you or someone you love or care about is experiencing stress and negatively affecting their health, please don't wait another day. Get in touch with a doctor, a therapist, a stress coach, or someone in your community who can support you and build the life you truly deserve to live!

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