Stress management can be complicated and confusing because there are different types of stress — acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress — each with its own characteristics, symptoms, duration, and treatment approaches. Let’s look at each one.
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 recognized by most people. It’s a laundry list of what has gone awry in their lives: the auto accident that crumpled the car fender, 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 anger or irritability, anxiety, and depression, the three stress emotions;
- 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, diarrhea, 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 crop up in anyone’s life, and it is highly treatable and manageable.
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 organize the slew of self-inflicted demands and pressures clamoring 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.