Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting. A fast run down a challenging ski slope, for example, is exhilarating early in the day. That same ski run late in the day is taxing and wearing. Skiing beyond your limits can lead to falls and broken bones. By the same token, overdoing on short-term stress can lead to psychological distress, tension headaches, upset stomach, and other symptoms.
Fortunately, acute stress symptoms are recognised by most people. It's a laundry list of what has gone awry in their lives: the auto accident that crumpled the car bumper, the loss of an important contract, a deadline they're rushing to meet, their child's occasional problems at school, and so on.
Because it is short term, acute stress doesn't have enough time to do the extensive damage associated with long-term stress. The most common symptoms are:
Emotional distress - some combination of 'the three emotions of stress', namely anger or irritability, anxiety and depression
Muscular problems including tension headache, back pain, jaw pain, and the muscular tensions that lead to pulled muscles and tendon and ligament problems
Stomach, gut and bowel problems such as heartburn, acid stomach, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome
Transient over arousal leads to elevation in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dizziness, migraine headaches, cold hands or feet, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
Acute stress can and does crop up in anyone's life, and it is highly treatable and manageable. Most of us manage its existence on a day to basis. It can be useful at times to take a look at what you do to manage these episodes in your life. Your will likely have your own techniques. Identifying these can make them more available and
Episodic acute stress
There are those, however, who suffer acute stress frequently, whose lives are so disordered that they are studies in chaos and crisis. They're always in a rush, but always late. If something can go wrong, it does. They take on too much, have too many irons in the fire, and can't organise the array of self-inflicted demands and pressures vying for their attention. They seem perpetually in the clutches of acute stress.
It is common for people with acute stress reactions to be over aroused, short-tempered, irritable, anxious, and tense. Often, they describe themselves as having 'a lot of nervous energy.' Always in a hurry, they tend to be abrupt, and sometimes their irritability comes across as hostility. Interpersonal relationships deteriorate rapidly when others respond with real hostility. The work becomes a very stressful place for them.
The cardiac prone 'Type A' personality described by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman is similar to an extreme case of episodic acute stress. Type A's have an 'excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency.' In addition there is a 'free-floating, but well-rationalised form of hostility, and almost always a deep-seated insecurity.' Such personality characteristics would seem to create frequent episodes of acute stress for the Type A individual. Friedman and Rosenman found Type A's to be much more likely to develop coronary heat disease than Type B's, who show an opposite pattern of behavior.
Another form of episodic acute stress comes from ceaseless worry. 'Worry warts' see disaster around every corner and pessimistically forecast catastrophe in every situation. The world is a dangerous, unrewarding, punitive place where something awful is always about to happen. These 'awfulisers' also tend to be over aroused and tense, but are more anxious and depressed than angry and hostile.
The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the symptoms of extended over arousal: persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease. Treating episodic acute stress requires intervention on a number of levels, generally requiring professional help, which may take many months.
Often, lifestyle and personality issues are so ingrained and habitual with these individuals that they see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives. They blame their woes on other people and external events. Frequently, they see their lifestyle, their patterns of interacting with others, and their ways of perceiving the world as part and parcel of who and what they are.
Sufferers can be fiercely resistant to change. Often, only the promise of relief from pain and discomfort of their symptoms can keep them in treatment and on track in their recovery program.
While acute stress can be thrilling and exciting, chronic stress is not. This is the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year. Chronic stress destroys bodies, minds and lives. It wreaks havoc through long-term attrition. It's the stress of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised job or career. It is the stress that the never-ending 'troubles' have brought to the people of Northern Ireland, the tensions of the Middle East have brought to the Arab and Jew, and the endless ethnic rivalries that have been brought to the people of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a miserable situation. It's the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time. With no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.
Some chronic stresses stem from traumatic, early childhood experiences that become internalised and remain forever painful and present. Some experiences profoundly affect personality. A view of the world, or a belief system, is created that causes unending stress for the individual (e.g., the world is a threatening place, people will find out you are a pretender, you must be perfect at all times). When personality or deep-seated convictions and beliefs must be reformulated, recovery requires active self-examination, often with professional help.
The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it. They forget it's there. People are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic stress because it is old, familiar, and sometimes, almost comfortable. We can get to see the experience of it as simply 'who we are'.
Chronic stress kills through suicide, violence, heart attack, stroke, and perhaps, even cancer. People wear down to a final, fatal breakdown. Because physical and mental resources are depleted through long-term attrition, the symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require extended medical as well as behavioural treatment and stress management.
Six myths about stress
Six myths surround stress, and dispelling them enables us to understand our problems and then take action against them. Let's look at these myths.
Myth 1: Stress is the same for everybody.
Completely wrong. Stress is different for each of us. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another; each of us responds to stress in an entirely different way.
Myth 2: Stress is always bad for you.
According to this view, zero stress makes us happy and healthy. Wrong. Stress is to the human condition what tension is to the violin string: too little and the music is dull and raspy; too much and the music is shrill or the string snaps. Stress can be the kiss of death or the spice of life. The issue, really, is how to manage it. Managed stress makes us productive and happy; mismanaged stress hurts and even kills us.
Myth 3: Stress is everywhere, so you can't do anything about it.
Not so. You can plan your life so that stress does not overwhelm you. Effective planning involves setting priorities and working on simple problems first, solving them, and then going on to more complex difficulties. When stress is mismanaged, it's difficult to prioritise. All your problems seem to be equal and stress seems to be everywhere.
Myth 4: The most popular techniques for reducing stress are the best ones.
Again, not so. No universally effective stress reduction techniques exist. We are all different, our lives are different, our situations are different, and our reactions are different. Only a comprehensive program tailored to the individual works.
Myth 5: No symptoms, no stress.
Absence of symptoms does not mean the absence of stress. In fact, camouflaging symptoms with medication may deprive you of the signals you need for reducing the strain on your physiological and psychological systems.
Myth 6: Only major symptoms of stress require attention.
This myth assumes that the 'minor' symptoms, such as headaches or stomach acid, may be safely ignored. Minor symptoms of stress are the early warnings that your life is getting out of hand and that you need to do a better job of managing stress.
Exercise and stress
Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress, according to research into the effect of exercise on neurochemicals involved in the body's stress response.
Preliminary evidence suggests that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. But little work has focused on why that should be. So to determine how exercise might bring about its mental health benefits, some researchers are looking at possible links between exercise and brain chemicals associated with stress, anxiety, and depression.
So far there's little evidence for the popular theory that exercise causes a rush of endorphins. Rather, one line of research points to the less familiar neuromodulator norepinephrine, which may help the brain deal with stress more efficiently.
Work in animals since the late 1980s has found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body's stress response.
Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain's supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the brain regions involved in emotional and stress responses. The chemical is thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent neurotransmitters that play a direct role in the stress response. And although researchers are unsure of exactly how most antidepressants work, they know that some increase brain concentrations of norepinephrine.
But some psychologists don't think it's a simple matter of more norepinephrine equals less stress and anxiety and therefore less depression. Instead, they think exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body's ability to respond to stress.
Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body's physiological systems, all of which are involved in the stress response to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body's communication system may be the true value of exercise - the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.
When and how to get help
In the workplace and at home, stress and other difficult situations are at an all-time high for many of us. Being constantly worried about being laid off, or doing the job of two people, can cause serious problems for workers. On the home front, going through a divorce, caring for elderly parents, managing children in a rapidly changing world, or dealing with a life-threatening illness are some of the difficult situations that can test a family's coping abilities.
When is it time to ask for help? Here are a few indicators:
You feel trapped, like there's nowhere to turn
You worry excessively and can't concentrate
The way you feel affects your sleep, your eating habits, your job, your relationships, your everyday life.
Registered psychologists can help people address the causes of their distress and teach them effective ways to deal with those causes. Early detection and treatment can head off serious consequences.
Listed alphabetically, our approach to treating stress includes:
What if ... learning new and effective skills, was easier than you thought? Imagine that.
We acknowledge information sourced and adapted from The Stress Solution by Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.; the work of Rod K. Dishman, PhD, of the University of Georgia, and Mark Sothmann, PhD, of Indiana University's School of Medicine and School of Allied Health Sciences; and from the information provided by the American Psychological Association. See also the Australian Psychological Society.