Acute vs Chronic Stress: 2 Types of Stress Explained

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between acute vs chronic stress? Why is it important to understand the difference? How can you manage these two types of stress? 

Acute stress is short-term stress caused by immediate events like public speaking or a job interview. Chronic stress is long-term stress caused by repeated exposure to stressors over a long time. This article will show you how to tell the difference between these two types of stress and how to manage them.

Learn about acute vs chronic stress below.

Acute vs Chronic Stress, Explained

There are two types of stress: acute vs chronic. Acute stress is immediate and sudden, while chronic stress is ongoing. We’ll first discuss acute stress, then we’ll look at chronic stress. This article will teach you all about acute vs chronic stress, and the best ways to manage them. 

Find out how to tell the difference between acute vs chronic stress.

What Is Acute Stress?

Acute stress is short-term stress caused by sudden stressors like arguments or job interviews. Our bodies are usually good at dealing with this type of stress, but we should try to reduce the impact it has. 

When faced with acute stress, your emotional brain reacts faster to stimuli than your rational brain does. As a result, it will often respond to a sudden stressful situation with a Fight, Flight, or Freeze reaction before your rational brain has had a chance to evaluate the situation. 

Managing Acute Stress

When experiencing acute stress, follow these steps:

  1. Be aware: The first step is to consciously recognize when you’re feeling stressed, by acknowledging that you’re having feelings you don’t want to have, such as anger, anxiety, or fear. 
  2. Resolve to change: Once you detect uncomfortable feelings and you know you’re experiencing stress, consciously tell yourself that you’re going to change your typical reaction. 
  3. Pause: Give yourself a moment to think before you react, allowing your rational mind an opportunity to contribute. Simply slowing down is often the best way to manage your emotions.
  4. Get distance: Remove yourself from the situation if possible. You might do this physically, by, for example, leaving the room, or you might do this psychologically, by, for example, telling the other person you need a few minutes to think.
  5. Get perspective: Look at this incident in context—recognize that this is a small, temporary incident in a long line of events. Ask yourself how important this incident is in the grand scheme of things. In 10 years, will this matter?
  6. Form a plan: Ask your rational mind what you can do to change the dynamic of your relationship with the other person. Think of practical actions you can take or statements and questions you can make.
  7. Activate your plan: Let your rational mind interact with the other person and carry out the ideas you came up with to find a solution. 
  8. Smile: Try to leave your interaction with the other person in a positive way. 

Manage Acute Stress by Accepting It

You’ll be better able to manage your emotional reaction to stressful situations if you don’t try to mentally fight the reality of what’s happening. If you accept your situation, you can focus on finding a solution to your problems rather than being consumed by negative emotions

Start at the right starting point: View a stressful situation from where you stand currently, not from where you want to be. Seeing your starting point as where you are now allows you to think of how you’ll improve, while seeing only where you wish you were can make you feel demoralized. For example, if you break an arm and the doctor tells you that you’ll spend the next two months in a cast and probably won’t get full motion back in your joints, you may be tempted to focus on where you wish you used to be—uninjured and fully functional—which will only increase your anxiety and anger. However, if you focus on your current situation as your starting point—accepting that you’re injured and have some recovering to do—then you’ll see each step toward recovery as progress. 

Accept that life changes: When you come to peace with the fact that things will change, you won’t view changes as losses, but will see them as simply changes. If you expect your life to stay the same, you’ll be disappointed and upset when things inevitably change. So, for example, if you get laid off, instead of focusing on the loss of your job, remind yourself that it’s a change that you simply must accept and deal with, and you’ll be able to approach the situation with a more positive attitude. 

What Is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is stress that you have learned to live with over a long period of time. This type of stress can cause physical health problems like a lower immune system and chronic fatigue, as well as mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Understanding this is crucial in telling the difference between acute vs chronic stress.

Chronic stress can arise from living in a difficult circumstance (such as long-term unemployment or chronic back pain). It can also come from dealing with difficult people for a long time (such as an emotionally abusive family member). Often, though, chronic stress comes from within.

Managing Chronic Stress

Chronic stress often arises when you have deep-seated negative habits of thought. This is a key difference between acute vs chronic stress. These are likely driving your actions when you do any of the following: 

  • Exacerbate your own problems: You may be unaware of how you’re exacerbating your own problems. For example, if you feel that people never listen to you, but then you snap at them because of this, they’re even less likely to listen to you. 
  • Make excuses: Sometimes you might blame your stress on a difficult set of circumstances when your own behaviors are actually the problem. For example, if you’re overwhelmed by your schedule because you’re going to school while working, you may be tempted to blame the workload your teachers give you, when in fact, the real problem is your lack of time management skills.
  • Seek or invent problems: Sometimes a person gets used to anxiety and normalizes it. When anxiety becomes your baseline, you’ll always be on the lookout for the next problem, and if you don’t find one, you may come up with something to worry about that isn’t a true issue.

You can manage negative thoughts by replacing them with positive ones. Some positive thoughts that you can internalize to counter chronic stress include these thoughts:

  • Most worries turn out to be trivial.
  • Worrying never does any good in and of itself.
  • Solutions to problems take time.
  • You’re capable of living with your problem and addressing it over a long period.

Follow these tips about acute vs chronic stress to get better at handling stress. Understanding these two types of stress can dramatically improve your well-being and personal relationships. 

Acute vs Chronic Stress: 2 Types of Stress Explained

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  • Why we struggle to control our urges, succumb to temptation, and sabotage our own success
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  • Why your psychological world is like a solar system with 7 planets

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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