Dr. Gregory Jantz

Understanding Acute and Chronic Stress

October 31, 2015

Acute stress is the slam-on-the brakes kind of stress. It’s tied to a specific event that is perceived as either dangerous or demanding. Your body rallies around the emotional reaction of alarm and fear by preparing itself for fight or flight. In fact, that’s what the physical reaction is called: “the fight or flight response.” When confronted with a dangerous or demanding situation, you’re either going to run away like crazy or put up your dukes and flight.

Acute stress and your body’s reaction to it can be very beneficial. If I’m the person who has just mindlessly stepped out in front of your car, I want you to experience the slam-on-the-brakes kind of stress! If you don’t, I’m in trouble. There are simply times in your life when dangerous or demanding situations arise and must be dealt with for your own safety and for the safety of others.

When acute stress occurs, your heart beats faster and your breathing speeds up because your body produces adrenaline. You’re pumped! In the heal of the moment, all of that extra energy and heightened physical response may be necessary if you need to fight your way out of a problem or run away from it. The body, of course, does not judge between a true fight or flight situation and a false alarm or close call. Once the immediate danger has passed, your body calms down and returns to normal.

Although, the situation may be resolved fairly quickly, acute stress can have lingering effects. Your heart and breathing return to normal, but you may have trouble concentrating for several hours or longer after the event. Muscles that tensed and became taut during the incident may be sore for a while. You may feel a bit queasy or have an unsettled stomach. These symptoms tend to go away eventually.

Chronic stress is the drawn-out-over-time type of stress. It’s the water drops dripping on your head. Just one drop isn’t a problem, but if that drip continues drop after drop, day after day, month after month, year after year, it builds up and makes you hypersensitive to that next little plop! At that next little plop, you go ballistic and yell out, “That’s it! I can’t take it anymore!” Others, who are unaware of the dripping, look at you askew and think, “Whew! What’s wrong with that guy?” This is a state people find themselves in when faced with difficult, ongoing situations such as an unhappy home life or stressful job. There’s no slam-on-the-brakes emergency but a continual drip-drip-drip of a demanding situation that never seems to go away.

Chronic stress has some pretty significant health impacts. When your life is filled with ongoing stress, it takes a toll. Here is a list of stress symptoms from WebMD[1]:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck and/or tight shoulders
  • Backache
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating and sweaty palms
  • Upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea
  • Feeling irritated or frustrated at even minor disturbances, losing your temper more often, and yelling at others for no reason
  • Feeling jumpy and exhausted all the time
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or focus on tasks
  • Worrying too much about insignificant things
  • Doubting your ability to do things
  • Imagining negative, terrifying, or worrisome scenes
  • Feeling you are missing opportunities because you can’t act quickly

The effects of chronic stress, as you can see, are pretty debilitating. They include both physical and psychological effects.

If you or a loved one is struggling with constant stress, anxiety and fear, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help. Contact us to speak confidentially with a specialist today. Fill out this form, or call 1-888-747-5592.

[1] WebMd.com, “Effects of Stress,” Stress Management Health Center, http://www.webmd.com/balance/tc/Stress-Management-Effects-of-Stress (accessed July 19, 2007)