The Different Kinds of Stress
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
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
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
*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,
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
Episodic Acute Stress
There are those, however, who suffer acute stress frequently, whose lives are so
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
in the clutches of acute stress.
It is common for people with acute stress reactions to be over aroused,
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
Interpersonal relationships deteriorate rapidly when others respond with real
hostility. The work
becomes a very stressful place for them.
The cardiac prone, "Type A" personality described by cardiologists, Meter
Friedman and Ray Rosenman, is similar to an extreme case of episodic acute
stress. Type A's have an "excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness,
impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency." In addition there is a
"free-floating, but well-rationalized form of hostility, and almost always a
deep-seated insecurity." Such personality characteristics would seem to create
frequent episodes of acute stress for the Type A individual. Friedman and
Rosenman found Type A's to be much more likely to develop coronary heat disease
than Type B's, who show an opposite pattern of behavior.
Another form of episodic acute stress comes from ceaseless worry. "Worry warts"
see disaster around every corner and pessimistically forecast catastrophe in
every situation. The world is a dangerous, unrewarding, punitive place where
something awful is always about to happen. These "awfulizers" also tend to be
over aroused and tense, but are more anxious and depressed than angry and
The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the symptoms of extended over arousal:
headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease. Treating
episodic acute stress
requires intervention on a number of levels, generally requiring professional
help, which may take
Often, lifestyle and personality issues are so ingrained and habitual with these
they see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives. They blame their
woes on other people
and external events. Frequently, they see their lifestyle, their patterns of
interacting with others,
and their ways of perceiving the world as part and parcel of who and what they
Sufferers can be fiercely resistant to change. Only the promise of relief from
pain and discomfort
of their symptoms can keep them in treatment and on track in their recovery
While acute stress can be thrilling and exciting, chronic stress is not. This is
stress that wears people away day after day, year after year. Chronic stress
minds and lives. It wreaks havoc through long-term attrition. It's the stress of
dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised
job or career.
It's the stress that the never-ending "troubles" have brought to the people of
the tensions of the Middle East have brought to the Arab and Jew, and the
rivalries that have been brought to the people of Eastern Europe and the former
Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a miserable
situation. It's the
stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods
of time. With
no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.
Some chronic stresses stem from traumatic, early childhood experiences that
and remain forever painful and present. Some experiences profoundly affect
personality. A view
of the world, or a belief system, is created that causes unending stress for the
(e.g., the world is a threatening place, people will find out you are a
pretender, you must be
perfect at all times). When personality or deep-seated convictions and beliefs
must be reformulated,
recovery requires active self-examination, often with professional help.
The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it. They forget
it's there. People
are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic
stress because it is
old, familiar, and sometimes, almost comfortable.
Chronic stress kills through suicide, violence, heart attack, stroke, and,
perhaps, even cancer.
People wear down to a final, fatal breakdown. Because physical and mental
resources are depleted
through long-term attrition, the symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to
treat and may require
extended medical as well as behavioral treatment and stress management.
Adapted from The Stress Solution by Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith,