Stress is a common occurrence, but determining whether it’s acute or chronic might guide how you respond.

Life comes with challenges each day. Work, school, and our day-to-day responsibilities can be overwhelming at times.

Stress is our body’s natural response to a perceived threat. But when is stress helpful, and when is it harmful?

In the short term (acute), stress can help boost our energy, improve our memory, and motivate us to meet difficult challenges. On the other hand, long-term (chronic) stress can build up over time, lasting months to years.

Eventually, chronic stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

So how can you tell the difference?

Knowing more about each type can help you understand the difference and manage it.

Acute stress occurs during a particular time or event and is isolated to that incident.

You might experience acute stress when you have a near-miss car accident, or you’re preparing for an important presentation at work.

Common symptoms of acute stress you might experience include:

  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling lightheaded
  • headaches
  • stomach pain or indigestion
  • sweating
  • chest pain

The body and nervous system are equipped to handle shorter instances of stress.

Acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some ways, with many of its symptoms overlapping. But unlike PTSD symptoms that can last for more than a month, ASD symptoms last between 3 and 30 days.

If your symptoms continue past that time, a diagnosis of PTSD may be made.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the following criteria must be met for a diagnosis of ASD:

  • direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event, including actual or threatened death, sexual violation, or a serious injury
  • presence of nine (or more) of the symptoms from any of the five categories — intrusion, negative mood, dissociation, avoidance, and arousal — that either started or worsened after the traumatic event(s) occurred
  • significant distress that interferes with your day-to-day activities, including work, school, and social life
  • symptoms that occurred within 3 days to 1 month of the stressor and last at least 3 days
  • identifying a particular event as the cause of the symptoms, ruling out other causes such as physical conditions, alcohol, or medication

If you think you might have acute stress disorder, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for further evaluation.

Chronic stress is ongoing. Similar to chronic pain or chronic illness, chronic stress could increase or decrease in severity but is relatively consistent in its presence.

This could be due to any number of things, from an unhealthy relationship where you’re constantly arguing to a job that is burdensome and leaves you overworked daily.

Common symptoms of chronic stress you might experience include:

  • isolation or emotional withdrawal
  • low energy
  • aches and pains
  • trouble sleeping
  • trouble staying focused
  • change in appetite

According to a 2015 study, chronic stress can take a toll on the body and affect you physically and mentally over time.

In response to being heightened, the body releases stress hormones.

This is typically useful, but when released with no immediate threat — especially consistently — this could lead to other chronic health issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Your mental health is also at potential risk with chronic stress. It could lead to mental health conditions such as:

Trauma and stress

According to a 2016 report, a traumatic situation could be either acute or chronic, serving as a potential contributing factor for either type of stress.

Even if a traumatic situation is an isolated event, the effects could be long lasting due to either a psychological impact (such as PTSD) or tangible consequences (such as being forcibly separated from your family.)

Other ongoing situations that could cause stress — such as poverty, health inequity, or racism — are traumatic and can be chronic stressors.

Because these stressors aren’t only external but structural or systemic, typical stress management could be helpful in some cases, but it might not ease the stress entirely.

Because chronic stress could impact your mental and physical health, discovering ways to manage your daily stressors could improve your quality of life.

To navigate the symptoms of chronic stress, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) suggests these strategies:

  • eating and drinking water regularly
  • limiting caffeine
  • exercising or moving your body in ways that feel good to you
  • getting enough sleep

Other suggestions for both management and prevention of chronic stress include:

  • journaling
  • practicing mindfulness or meditation
  • making intentional time for things you enjoy
  • practicing time-management strategies
  • building stress reduction skills
  • spending time and connecting with people who care about you
  • connecting with a mental health professional

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but it doesn’t have to affect your health.

A brief but contained response to stress is completely natural and will likely subside on its own.

In an ongoing stressful situation, it can be easy to feel stuck. But you do have options. Prioritizing your self-care and learning ways to manage your stress can be helpful.

A mental health professional can support you by helping you to identify the stressors in your life and find ways to cope with them.