Acute stress refers to your body’s immediate response to an event, challenge or demand. It is also known as shock, referring to the fight-or-flight response. This results in a biological reaction to cope with the surrounding environmental pressure and can assist in being able to miss a car accident through heightened reflexes, study for an exam or even write one. Acute stress is not always the result of negative stress, it can also refer to the rush you get with riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie.
This type of stress in isolated episodes does not normally result in prolonged adverse health effects. In some cases, acute stress can actually be good for the body in helping it and the brain to practice in developing the best possible response to stressful situations that may happen in the future.
When acute stress is severe, however, for example, suffering from a violent crime or a life-threatening situation, it can lead to psychological problems such as acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is determined by the development of a severe psychological issue, such an anxiety, that occurs within a month of exposure to an extremely stressful or traumatic situation.
In response to the stressor (the stressful event), you may start to develop dissociative symptoms. These refer to disruptions in memory, identity, perception and awareness. Dissociation means to mentally disconnect from one’s emotions, memories and even thoughts and sense of identity.
When severe acute stress is experienced, it is best to seek professional advice and assistance.
Chronic stress is the result of unresolved acute stress. When acute stress starts to increase or lasts over a prolonged period of time, it turns into chronic stress. Once a threat or situation has passed, the body normally returns to normal. As the hormone levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to a healthy level, baseline level (meaning their initial level).
However, when stressors (the triggers of stress) are constantly present, your body may feel as though it is constantly under attack. Thus, the fight-or-flight response remains. This results in your body being over-exposed to cortisol and other stress hormones that are able to disrupt other body processes, putting you at risk of a number of health conditions, these can include:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnoea
- Weight gain
- Skin problems
- Gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Should you experience any of these symptoms, have witnessed a stressful or traumatic event or be experiencing a high level of stress, consult with your doctor for treatment and the development of coping mechanisms to manage stress.