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What is stress? 

The stress response is a natural, automatic process within the body that is triggered by situational stressors or changes. All humans experience stress because it is an evolutionary tool that keeps us alert, out of danger and surviving. When the current situation around someone changes and they feel threatened (this can be as minor as an impending deadline or as scary as a physical attack), the nervous system releases a deluge of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. 

These hormones trigger what’s commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The body prepares to either fight the impending danger or flee far away from it. One’s heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, muscles tighten and the senses become much sharper. Stress is a necessity for human survival, however, too much of it can drastically impact our health. 

What causes acute stress?

Acute stress is the stress experienced on a daily basis from minor situations. Coming in bursts, acute stress typically happens quickly and fades once the situation or circumstance has passed. Most of us experience this type of stress and our bodies are just fine afterwards. Examples of situations that may cause acute stress include: 

  • Traffic jams
  • Crowds
  • Loud noises 
  • Running late
  • Argument with loved one
  • Impending deadlines for work-related projects
  • Losing essential items like a wallet or phone

What are symptoms of acute stress? 

Acute stress has symptoms that many of us are familiar with and can experience on a daily basis. Occasionally, some of these symptoms of acute stress may cause health issues, but for the most part, they usually subside when the stressful situation is resolved. These include: 

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of focus
  • Insomnia
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Anger
  • Nail biting 

Insomnia, anxiety and irritability have a tendency to impact how we feel each day. However, it’s important to note that situations causing acute stress are typically easier to resolve than those that cause chronic stress. For example, you have a big presentation next week and you are feeling stressed out. Up until the presentation, you may experience insomnia, recurrent nightmares or anxiety. After you give the presentation, the stressful situation has passed and these symptoms will fade. 

What causes chronic stress? 

There are a whole host of issues that can cause chronic stress. For some, global occurrences (like the pandemic) can leave lingering feelings of pressure or overwhelm our senses. Political strife, war, environmental woes and the like may cause chronic stress. However, it is more common that patients suffer from chronic stress because of something specific happening in their own lives. Here are the five major categories of the causes of chronic stress.  

  • Relationship stress. Personal relationships can bring such joy to our lives as humans, however, unhealthy relationships may invite chronic stress. Familial, romantic, working or friendly relationships have the ability to turn toxic, emotionally abusive or even physically abusive and cause chronic stress. 
  • Traumatic stress / PTSD. Those who have experienced a traumatic situation can hold on to that stress instead of releasing it. They may relive the traumatic moment over and over, experiencing triggering situations on a daily basis. This can lead to experiencing chronic stress. 
  • Location-related stress. Often, the environments in which we live, work and play may cause stress. As the environment changes under the stress of industrialization, cities are inherently more polluted. It can be harder to leave, find quiet spaces or seek nature. 
  • Work-related stress. Economic instability, high-pressure jobs or intense, goal-setting climates can lead to work-related chronic stress. This can be hard to alleviate since an individual is experiencing this situation many times a week. 

What are symptoms of chronic stress? 

Chronic stress takes its toll on the mind and body. It can manifest in a variety of ways and depends upon the individual. Some of the more common symptoms of chronic stress include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of focus
  • Decreased energy
  • Feeling of helplessness
  • Frequently ill or trouble recovering from mild illnesses
  • Body aches and pains that are unrelated to physical exertion
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • High blood pressure or hypertension
  • Digestive issues
  • Spasmodic dysphonia

How do acute and chronic stress affect our lives?

While chronic stress is a more severe, pervasive form of acute stress, both instances can affect our daily lives. Chronic has a tendency to have more drastic impacts, but acute can also minimize our overall quality of life. Health issues related to chronic stress can be more life threatening but poor stress management practices may allow acute stress to also influence our wellbeing. Examples include: 

  • Weight gain. As appetite and digestion are often affected by both chronic and acute stress, each may cause undue weight gain. Experiencing weight gain or even obesity may invite additional complications like hypertension, heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes
  • Weight loss. Similarly, losing weight may be indicative of chronic or acute stress. When stressful situations arise, some individuals lose their appetite or use dieting as a form of control over their lives. Eventually, this unhealthy stress management practice may lead to development of an eating disorder, extreme weight loss and irregular menstrual cycles. 
  • Substance abuse. Many partake in using alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs as a form of stress management. This unhealthy practice can lead to high blood pressure, cancer and premature death. 
  • Lack of meaningful personal relationships. Chronic stress can eliminate meaningful relationships from our lives, slowly but surely. Irritability, anger, depression and other mood-related disorders caused by chronic stress make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. 
  • Lack of meaningful hobbies or interests. Similar to losing relationships, a disinterest in hobbies is common for those suffering from chronic stress. 
  • Self-harm. From minor instances, like nail-biting, to major, life-threatening ones including suicidal thoughts or tendencies, self-harm is a major symptom of chronic stress.  
  • Poor performance at work. A lack of focus and low energy lead to poor performances at work. This can increase acute stress and eventually facilitate chronic stress. 
  • Development of mood disorders. While acute anxiety or depression may be caused by acute stress, these mood disorders may become lasting when an individual experiences chronic stressors frequently. 
  • Decreased libido. A lower sex drive is a common occurrence of both acute and chronic stress. This can cause strain on romantic relationships and diminish one’s overall wellbeing. 

What are treatments for acute stress?

Treating acute stress involves lifestyle changes and stress management practices rather than medication or intensive therapeutic treatment. Some treatments for acute stress include:  

  • Exercise. For many Americans, life is sedentary meaning we need to prioritize exercise. 30 minutes a day can boost the heart rate, release endorphins and increase serotonin. Additionally, leading an active lifestyle can greatly reduce overall stress and help one be better equipped to mitigate stress’s symptoms when they do arise. 
  • Mindfulness practices. Meditation, yoga and breathwork help one remain in the present and not dwell on stressful situations down the line. 
  • Relaxation techniques. Taking a warm shower, calling a friend, going for a walk or drinking a cup of tea can help minimize acute stressors. 
  • Diet. Keeping blood sugar levels consistent can help with stress. 
  • Deepening social connections. Having a network of people who care about you and who you can rely on in times of need works wonders in easing the mind and reducing stress. 
  • Reducing screen time. Staying off of our screens and limiting social media time can directly correlate to feeling less overwhelmed and stressed out. 
  • Reducing caffeine intake. Coffee or other beverages highly caffeinated are intended to wake us up, increase the heart rate and heighten the senses. If you are already in a heightened state of awareness, like one caused by stress, avoid adding caffeine. 
  • Avoiding potentially stressful situations. If you get stressed out by traveling on airplanes, try to limit the situations in which you’ll be doing this. Avoid holiday travel, when delays and crowds are common, or talk to a holistic doctor about supplements that may help ease tension before and during the flight. 
  • Self-compassion. Forgiveness and self-compassion are huge in reducing stress. Many of us feel like we can’t keep up, we are wasting our time or we are letting others down in one way or another. This can cause undue stress in all areas of our lives. A little self-compassion goes a long way. 

What are the treatment options for chronic stress? 

There are three main realms of chronic stress treatments. These include psychotherapy, medical intervention and lifestyle changes. 

  • Psychotherapy. Various forms of therapy can help in treating chronic stress.
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
    • EMDR. 
    • Neurofeedback. 
  • Medication. Depending on symptoms experienced from chronic stress, the doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety or antidepressant. 
    • SSRIs. 
    • CNS depressant. 
    • BuSpar
    • Beta blocker. 
    • Nutritional supplements. 
  • Lifestyle change. The same stress management practices that work for acute stress can also apply to chronic stress. 
    • Exercise.
    • Mindfulness practices
    • Making healthy choices like avoiding substances, eating clean and sleeping eight hours a day. 
    • Developing strong social connections. 
    • Deep breathing on a routine basis. 

How can I manage acute stress and chronic stress? 

The modern world we live in today is fast paced and stress-inducing. For many of us, acute stress happens on a daily basis. For others, chronic stress has bloomed to take over our lives. Both can impact happiness and enthusiasm for life. 

With the help of your holistic doctor, a therapist and by making some personal lifestyle changes, you can get out from under acute and chronic stress. It does take a concerted effort and a willingness to change daily behaviors. UCF Health’s patient portal offers numerous resources for finding a doctor, online scheduling and more. Don’t let stress rule your life when it doesn’t have to.