There are times when feeling stress is necessary and healthy. For instance, running from a bear will prompt your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol that will help you in your attempt to escape. When the bear is gone, these stress hormones will go away.

However, some people’s bodies have the same reaction to running from a bear as they do when they’re about to take their chemistry final. In some circumstances, stress can even last for long periods of time. Left unchecked, long-term stress can cause health risks down the road.

What Causes Stress

Stress happens anytime your brain perceives a threat. The physiological effect of stress is to make you alert, lower your reaction times, and remove energy from functions that aren’t necessary in that moment. Even in non-life threatening events, the stress response can still be useful.

Stressors can come from absolutely anywhere. They can be single events, like an exam or going on a first date. They can also be long-term circumstances, like financial situations, or strenuous college programs.

What is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Stress?

Doctors generally break stress up into two categories: acute and chronic. The physiological reaction is the same in each, but the duration and intensity is what differentiates them. 

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the response to a single event or incident. Think of your reaction to nearly being in a car accident, or speaking in front of the class. Your heart accelerates, you might breathe more heavily and start sweating. These indicate the sudden release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

Everyone experiences acute stress from time to time. Some people are more reactive to stress than others, or they experience it more intensely. Someone might be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder, or ASD, if they experience acute stress reactions at least three times a week for four weeks. These symptoms can develop after a single exposure to a traumatic event.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information, or NCBI, says that ASD is an indicator of PTSD. Frequent acute stress reactions that last longer than four weeks could be diagnosed as PTSD.  

Chronic Stress

Your body can regulate after a short stressful experience, but, what if instead of speaking in front of a class for a single presentation, you are struggling in a difficult class that your degree depends on?

Chronic stress happens when you’re in long-term, exhausting circumstances. Yale Medicine describes chronic stress as something that “drains psychological resources and damages your brain and body.”

Short bursts of distress are fine, but in the long term, the wear on your body can add up. Stress hormones aren’t meant to be surging through your body for long.

When you are experiencing chronic stress, instead of elevated heart rate and sweating, you may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Aches and pains
  • Change in appetite

The intensity of stress may ebb and flow, but it’s always there. Without treatment or effective stress management practices, chronic stress can have a significant, negative impact on your life.

Stress at School

Acute and chronic stress can affect people of all ages. Since school is such a large part of our lives for such a long time, it makes sense that it’s a major cause of stress for young people.

Homework is the leading stressor of high schoolers, but extracurricular activities, social relationships, and pressure related to grades also contribute to chronic stress.

College students are especially susceptible to chronic stress. Life-changing milestones, like living independently, and determining your career trajectory are all part of the college experience—not to mention pressures in the areas of romantic and social relationships. Too much stress can lead to lower academic performance and mental health disorders. 

According to the American Psychological Association, 45% of college students in the US sought counseling for stress in 2017. And this was even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced college students into many sudden, unprecedented, and difficult changes as they navigated how to do school at a distance. 

Health Effects of Chronic Stress

Your body is built to handle short bursts of (acute) stress, but it is not, in fact, equipped to deal with chronic stress. Those hormones that previously helped you navigate a challenging situation work against you when they are over-activated.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most notable symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Chronic Stress Can Lead to Severe Health Problems

When these symptoms are left untreated for too long, it can lead to heart disease and stroke. Chronic stress can also lead to depression, anxiety, and even addiction. They’re often diagnosed together.

When your body is putting so much energy into existing in “fight-or-flight mode,” resources get taken away from other systems in your body. Often, someone experiencing chronic stress has a lowered immune system, so they get sick more frequently. 

Stress Management Tools

Luckily, just like your mind can trick your body into thinking there is a threat on your life, you can also tell your brain that you are safe.

Stress Management In the Moment

It is tempting to have a drink or a cigarette to calm down, but other choices are healthier and more effective. 

Exercising is one of the most tried-and-true methods for releasing good brain chemicals that can reduce distressed feelings. Additionally, deep breathing and meditation are effective in calming the mind. 

Prevention Efforts for Stress Management

If you know you are entering a stressful period of life, practicing some stress relief methods regularly can keep it to a minimum. Sleeping and eating well can help your mind and body recover faster, and small habits like daily positive affirmations and expressing gratitude can go a long way. 

Some say that proper planning, especially for students, can mitigate stress as well. Schools often have resources that help with academic planning and strategies to keep you on track. Remember that if your workload is too much and is tanking your mental health, it’s time to reassess your commitments.

If you don’t know where to start with stress prevention, or nothing seems to work, our counselors and therapists are here to help. The experienced staff at Inner Balance Counseling will help you get to the bottom of what causes stress for you and equip you with practical stress management tips. 

Request a consultation today. Reach out. Show up. Feel better.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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