Today, the types of stress you experience can be harmful to your health. Did you know that originally your body’s reaction to stress was meant to protect you? Way back when, in the Stone Age—our body’s reaction to stress protected us from predators: lions, tigers and other aggressors. Such stressful threats are rare today, but other stressful situations have developed in their place.
The physical effects of stress on your body vary depending on whether the stressor is new (called acute stress)or whether the stressor has existed for a while (called chronic stress).
Acute stress is an immediate situation that causes stress and then the episode is over. The fight-or-flight response was designed for your body to handle this type of stress. Your heart is racing, your stress hormones are pumping, and rapid breathing all signal an immediate surge in energy and ability to handle this perceived threat. Then your body relaxes and begins to recover from the situation. Stress hormones are no longer released, breathing slows and your body begins to calm.
While an occasional mild occurrence of acute stress may produce positive results—renewed focus, motivation or energized action—persistent stress can lead to health issues.
Chronic stress is a persistent stress and your body has a difficult time recovering from the prolonged exposure. There is no down time for the body when the body’s reaction to the stress is on a constant alert. You may experience headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety or heart attack. The risk of chronic stress is that there is no recovery time for the body.
Effective stress management begins by identifying the sources of your stress and then creating strategies to handle them. Take a moment and create a written list of the things that cause stress in your life. Next to each listing, write whether it is acute stress or chronic stress. Finally, identify whether the stress is caused by someone else or if the stress is caused by your own feelings or thoughts.
External stressors may be triggered by a major life change or the environment around you. Notice which of the situations are causing acute stress and which are causing chronic stress.
Internal stressors may be triggered by worrying about what might happen, fear of the unknown, lack of self confidence or depression. Sometimes it is difficult to shut down your thinking, and you find yourself lying awake at night with racing thoughts.
When you experience both types of stress at the same time—chronic stress situations and additional acute stress episodes, you may find you are emotionally overloaded. By identifying which of these two types of stress are more common in your daily experience, you can begin to create strategies for change.
By understanding the effects of these two stress types, you can begin to manage, reduce or prevent the situations to continue in the future. You may not eliminate stress completely from your life, but you will find that you are handling it better.