Acute, Episodic and Chronic Stress - What's the difference?

We will all have stories of our own and others’ personal experiences over the past year.

Stressful is an adjective that has been frequently used to describe how we have found adjusting to different aspects of working and living through the pandemic.

Stressful – a situation or event which is challenging to deal with and makes us feel anxious and distressed.

In this short article, we thought it may be helpful to look at the common types of stress, an explanation of the stress response and examples of how an acute stress can lead to chronic stress.

This knowledge helps us understand the physical and mental effects of stress in ourselves, as well as our colleagues, friends and family members.  By creating awareness, we can be alert to when we may need to make changes to our lifestyle or seek help to aid our recovery.

It will hopefully also offer re-assurance that certain symptoms of stress help us function and achieve more, helping us react faster and gain greater satisfaction and enjoyment from our lives.

 

Common types of stress

Acute stress – is the most widely experienced stress and is the result of the daily pressures and demands we all face.  Acute stress only lasts for a short period of time e.g., a rush of customers over the lunchtime period, getting a report finished against a tight time deadline.  However, acute stress is not only felt due to experiences we think of negatively, it can also be felt when we partake in actions which bring thrill and excitement to our lives.  For example a theme park ride or an extreme sporting experience.

Episodic stress – is so called because it is used to describe when an acute stress is experienced too frequently.  It is often seen in people who make unrealistic or unreasonable demands of themselves, causing them stress in attempting to achieve their goals.  Although suffered more frequently than an acute stress, episodic stress is not continual and will stop from time to time e.g. at the end of a project or during holiday periods.

Chronic stress – can result when a person is subjected to persistent stress over a long period of time e.g. an unhappy relationship, chronic illness or ill-chosen career.  The stressful situation can seem to be never-ending.  The accumulated stress that develops from the various stressors experienced can lead to serious physical or psychological illness. This can result in behaviours such as self-harm, violence or suicide.

 

The physical stress response

Even though we may not actually be in danger, the body’s physical response to a stressful incident is to prepare us for a perceived threat or danger by instigating the fight or flight response.  Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are released in our bodies which bring on the physical effects that we all recognise:

  • We can feel our heart beating faster and pounding in our chest
  • Our breathing becomes shallower and quicker
  • There is a rise in our blood pressure
  • Our muscles tighten and feel tense
  • Our senses become keener
  • We feel the need to empty our bladder or bowels more frequently

 

The mental and emotional stress response

In addition to the physical fight or flight response, when we experience a stressful situation we also have a mental and emotional response.  Depending on the severity of the stress, we may notice a change in our feelings, our thoughts and find that our responses may be out of character.

Feelings

  •  Irritable or short-tempered
  •  Hopelessness and disinterest
  •  Anxious and a low mood
  •  Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem

Thoughts

  • Race from one thing to another
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unable to finish tasks due to the above 2 points, leading to more stressful thoughts
  • Becoming forgetful

How we respond

  • May be exaggerated
  • We may respond more quickly than normal to a problem before thinking it through properly
  • Conversely, decisions may be avoided or delayed

 

Stress Symptoms

Symptoms of stress can be physical, emotional, cognitive and/or behavioural.  You can find a list of symptoms under each of these classifications in our previous article, “How do you react to stress … and how do those close to you?

 

Examples of acute and chronic stress

As described above, the difference between acute and chronic stress can be the length of time or frequency with which we are exposed to an experience or situation we find stressful. Acute being the short-term stresses that occur during our daily existence; and chronic being unrelenting stress which we continue to experience over a prolonged period of time.

The following examples illustrate how an acute stress may be a standalone event or could, in time, turn into chronic stress.

Acute stress Chronic stress
An argument with a family member or friend Constant arguments with that person and the relationship turning sour
Noise from a neighbouring house Neighbours regularly causing a lot of noise and ignoring or being unpleasant to polite requests to make less noise
Being stuck in a traffic jam A traffic jam occurring in the same place on a route you have to use daily
A difficult conversation with your boss at work A difficult conversation with your boss at work not leading to an agreed positive resolution, but instead, to an on-going unpleasant atmosphere and a toxic relationship developing

 

 

Some tips for recovery from stress

The fight or flight response goes back to our primitive existence when we had to hunt for food and be alert to predators.  It's worth remembering that our bodies were, and are, built to face acute stressors followed by a period of recovery.

Sadly, many of us have forgotten this and rush from experiencing one bout of acute stress onto our next goal, which may bring about further stress. So, after an experience we have personally found stressful, it is worth remembering:

  • To slow down
  • To take a break
  • To change our physical environment, perhaps by going outside to a green space
  • To do something we find relaxing; this could be physical exercise, socialising or sitting comfortably and quietly
  • To ensure we set aside the recommended 7 or 8 hours each night to sleep

 

We deliver many stress management courses each year and have training designed for everyone in the workplace. You can find out more about the courses we offer here.

 

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