There’s a good kind of stress that can benefit your health: It’s called short-term stress, and it can boost performance, increase immunity, and sharpen memory.
Stress has a reputation for harming your health, but there’s a good kind of stress that has health advantages. It’s the burst of energy that lets you respond quickly to life’s challenges.
Acute stress is the “good” stress. There’s another kind of stress that’s chronic, or long-term. This is the “bad” kind of stress. It can negatively affect almost every system in your body and tire your immune system. While acute stress has potential health gains, stress overall can wear down both your physical and mental health if it occurs too frequently.
Good stress turns into bad stress when it becomes extreme or chronic. Both affect individuals differently, but how you handle it can make all the difference.
Acute stress and chronic stress have very different effects on your body. Acute stress is short-lived, lasting from minutes to hours. It boosts your energy and mental sharpness, and it’s an essential warning system in life threatening situations. It’s what gives you the quick response to avoid an accident just in the nick of time.
Short-term stress is useful in non-life-threatening situations, as well. Say you’re getting ready to interview for a new job. Short-term stress can motivate you and give you the edge you need to meet the challenge. It provides a built-in boost that you probably use many times every day.
This stress is part of the primeval fight-flight-freeze mechanism that has kept humanity alive through the ages. It primes your body to get ready to fight a threat, flee to safer ground, or hide.
Your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain starts working overtime. These are all a responses to stress. But this kind of stress subsides shortly after the event passes. It arises in situations you know you can handle — ones you know will be over soon, like traffic jams or a dentist appointment.
Since stress is a part of life, learning to deal well with stressors has been an important survival skill. One study showed that short-term stress can enhance mental and physical performance, up to a point. Beyond that, the effects of stress may start to be detrimental.
There are three types of generally recognized stress:
Acute stress is the most everyday variety of stress. It’s a built-in biological response to new challenges. The challenge may be either positive, like getting a promotion, or negative, like narrowly missing a car accident. Acute stress comes, and then it goes. When it’s over, your bodily functioning returns to normal.
As mentioned, this kind of stress isn’t usually harmful. In fact, it has been shown to:
- accelerate reaction time
- sharpen problem-solving ability
- stimulate memory
- elevate immune response
Acute stress is sometimes subdivided into two types, eustress and distress. Eustress is the type of short-term stress associated with positive events, like marriage, a promotion, or having a baby.
Distress is the short-term stress associated with a negative outcome, like having an argument or losing a job. Both eustress and distress affect the body in different ways, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Although short-term stress isn’t usually harmful in the long term, instances of severe acute stress can have lasting effects. This is the kind of stress faced by some healthcare workers and military service members who’ve been involved in life threatening situations. It can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is the result of continually going from one episode of acute stress to the next. Perhaps you have a job where you’re always chasing a new deadline. Or you manage a large household in which you face one crisis after another. Each episode has a beginning and an end, but the scenario of stress episodes is ongoing.
Episodic stress can also result if you tend to worry and always expect the worst outcome. Whether the nightmare scenario plays out or not, your body still experiences episodic stress from your mental projections.
Over time, episodic acute stress can affect your physical well-being and mental health. One
Chronic stress is the kind that builds over time and doesn’t let up over months or even years. There’s no end in sight, and you feel both the situation and the stress are beyond your control. Caregiving for a sick loved one or living with a long period of unemployment are examples of situations likely to result in chronic stress.
If left untreated, long-term chronic stress can damage multiple systems in your body and leave you vulnerable to illness. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), long-term stress can impact the following areas:
Immune system. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system, leaving you more prone to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold. It’ll also take longer to recover from illness and injury.
Musculoskeletal system. Chronic muscle tension can put a strain on the body’s skeletal system and lead to chronic pain, headaches, and degenerative disc disease.
Respiratory system. Over time, chronic stress can tax the respiratory system, particularly for those with pre-existing pulmonary diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Cardiovascular system. Stress can cause an elevated heart rate, which can result in higher levels of stress hormones and increased blood pressure. If this continues over time, it increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.
Endocrine system. Stress causes the hypothalamus at the base of your brain to send nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which then release an abundance of hormones. These include adrenaline and cortisol. These are useful in the short term, but over time they can lead to disorders like diabetes, chronic fatigue, and a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Gastrointestinal system. Millions of bacteria live in the human gut, affecting the health of both the gut and the brain. Stress can disrupt brain-gut communication and contribute to stomach pain and bloating. Stress can also irritate stomach ulcers and chronic bowel disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Reproductive system. Long-term stress can diminish the sexual drive and also make you more vulnerable to infections and diseases of the reproductive system. Stress can affect menstrual problems, resulting in irregular cycles, painful periods, and changes in menstrual cycle length. It can also interfere with testosterone production and the sympathetic nervous system, which creates arousal.
Mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, when prolonged stress increases the risks for mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Long-term stress can also worsen symptoms of existing mental illness. For example, it can trigger hallucinations and delusions among people with schizophrenia and episodes of both mania and depression among people with bipolar disorder.
Cancer.Many studies have been done on the relationship between stress and cancer. So far, researchers observe only weak evidence to link stress with cancer causes and outcomes. Some people do become overwhelmed after a cancer diagnosis or treatment, which may contribute to a decline in health.
Stress is a part of life, but it doesn’t need to turn into bad stress every time. The key is to keep stress from becoming chronic.
The quickest way to do this is to resolve the issue that’s causing it, but this isn’t always possible.
Here are some tips to help manage your stress in the meantime:
- Consider building and maintain a support network of trusted friends and family.
- You can practice relaxation techniques.
- You might manage tasks so that you don’t take on too much at one time.
- It’d be helpful to get regular exercise.
- You can set aside some time just for yourself.
- It’d be most helpful to avoid drugs and excess alcohol, which can make stress worse.
- You can seek out a mental health professional for support and guidance.
There are two main kinds of stress: “good” stress and “bad” stress. They each have different effects on your body.
Good, or acute, stress can support your physical performance and mental sharpness to help you meet short-term challenges.
Bad, or chronic, stress can lead to serious health issues and even increase your risk for stroke, heart attack, and weaker immune system.
Stress is a part of life, but there are many ways you can handle it before it takes a toll on your health. Managing your time and practicing mindfulness are two solid strategies.
If your management strategies aren’t working, consider speaking with a mental health professional to help you form an action plan to reduce the chronic stress in your life.