Stress happens to everyone, every day, in one form or another; it is an inevitable part of living. Stress is defined as our mental and physical response to a stressor – a change, demand or threat – over which we have no control. We do however, have control of how we respond to stress.
In this article, I outline the basics of stress, written in everyday language that the average reader can understand. First I define the three different kinds of stress and how they affects us, then I explain what happens in the body during stress, followed by a summary of several effective stress management tips and techniques that can be easily learned and practiced by the reader.
Change isn’t all bad, and neither is stress. Commuting to school or work is an everyday, mild stressor. The moderate stress of travel, changing jobs or going to a new school may feel invigorating and can spark creativity. If you’re about to run a race or deliver a presentation, the stress you feel will motivate you to focus and do your best. Extreme stress can be good for you, too, when your safety or survival is at stake. This stress activates specific parts of your nervous system very quickly, so you can fight off an attack, run for your life, or swerve to avoid crashing your car.
Psychologists categorize THREE TYPES OF STRESS:
• short-term, or acute stress- may be mild to extreme; generally easy to manage and treat
• episodic stress – acute stress that occurs too often for adequate recovery; often challenging to treat due to a person’s entrenched lifestyle, limiting beliefs or resistance to change
• chronic stress, a prolonged response to emotional or physical pressure, unresolved trauma, or a disturbing situation which a person believes they cannot control; very challenging to treat, usually requiring several months to two years or more and a combination of health care, behavioral modification and daily stress management
Acute stress, the most common form, is caused by daily demands and pressures, and it’s not always negative; in fact, it can be enjoyable, even thrilling, and when it’s balanced with prompt recovery, it boosts the immune system. For example, my daughter is learning how to drive, which is exciting and empowering for her. When she gets behind the wheel, she feels focused and energized by the acute stress. However, when she’s tired, during stormy weather or when traffic is heavy, the stress of driving can be too much for her, and she may end up feeling tense and irritable by the time she parks in our driveway.
Because acute stress is short-term and recovery generally happens soon after the stress ends, it usually doesn’t do as much damage as we see with long-term stress. If acute stress is extreme or if it builds up, however, it may cause these problems:
• Emotional distress: anger, anxiety, irritability, acute bouts of depression
• Physical symptoms: tension, headache, pain, upset stomach, gut or bowel disorders, vomiting, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or agitation, shortness of breath, hypertension, sweaty palms, cold hands or feet
Acute stress is normally easy to manage with relaxation techniques, like meditation or yoga. If the acute stress is extreme or traumatic though, professional help may be needed to support healing and recovery.
Acute stress that occurs too often is called episodic stress. This type of stress is usually experienced by people with “Type A” personalities; these people are characterized as aggressive, overly competitive, demanding, and intense. They tend to be impatient, abrupt and irritable; they’re always in a hurry in their attempts to meet self-imposed demands, and their relationships tend to suffer. This type of stress isn’t chronic; it stops now and then, but occurs more frequently than acute stress does.
Episodic stress can also stem from constant worry. People who imagine danger around every corner or expect bad things to keep happening tend to be overly aroused and tense. These pessimistic people are often anxious and depressed.
Episodic stress takes a greater toll than acute stress, and symptoms of repeated over-stimulation are:
• Emotional distress: frequent anger, anxiety, irritability, longer bouts of depression, excessive worry
• Physical symptoms: frequent tension headaches, migraines, heart disease, chest pains and high blood pressure, sleep disturbances
Because those who suffer with episodic stress are often strongly resistant to change, effectively treating this type of stress requires interventions on a few levels, usually with professional help, and may take several months.
Unlike acute stress, chronic stress is neither enjoyable nor exciting; it’s exhausting, unhealthy and dangerous. Chronic stress robs a person, day after day, month after month and even year after year of wellness, joy and fulfillment in life.
Chronic stress often stems from long-term exposure to stress related to: unhappy marriage or dysfunctional family relationships, unwanted career or job, repeated traumatic experiences, poverty or homelessness, chronic illness, overwork or excessive demands at school, living in a war zone or gang culture, or feeling powerless to change an unwanted, unhappy or dangerous situation.
Chronic stress can also result from early childhood adversity and traumatic experiences; see the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. When certain kinds of adversity occur in a child’s life, the child may internalize painful experiences that can remain present, as if they’re ongoing, and the child’s personality can be dramatically affected. In order to make sense of what’s happened, a distorted world view or set of limiting beliefs gets created; for example, that the world is unsafe, that he’s unworthy or unlovable, or that if she makes a mistake it means that she’s an idiot, so she must be perfect at all times. This keeps the stress active constantly, as the child and later adult lives with the inner limits and distortions.
Post childhood adversity recovery involves replacing deeply embedded, limiting beliefs and personality distortions with life-affirming beliefs and healthy personality affects. This calls for courageous self-assessment and transformation, often with the caring support of a trauma-informed professional.Read More