To properly understand the effects of stress on your health, you need to know the difference between acute and chronic stress:

Acute Stress

This is stress that gives us the strength to tackle hard things and to deal with all of the negative stressors that face us each day. Acute stress involves dealing with an upset customer, dealing with a driver on the road that has cut you off, or dealing with common relationship issues that come up every day and are resolved. Acute stress has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In acute stress, you can identify the stressor and you can identify how you are going to deal with it. The stress can be minor or severe but your “fight or flight” response kicks in to take care of the stressor. It doesn’t last long and you soon handle the stressor so that you are back in homeostasis with normal levels of stress hormones and a smooth feeling inside that means the stress has been handled.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress seems to have no beginning, middle, or end. It comes on and stays on no matter how you react. Chronic stress comes from bad relationships with chronic infighting, never-ending rush hour traffic that comes back day after day, and from chronic pressures at work that you can’t seem to dig yourself out of. This is stress that brings your heart rate up and blood pressure up on a chronic or repetitive basis so that you always feel on edge about life and you can’t trust your feelings.

Chronic stress is much more common, sadly, than acute stress. Chronic stress is a part of most people’s lives because we try to fit everything into our life without realizing that there isn’t enough time to get everything done. We put ourselves in chronically stressful circumstances in part because it is all around us and in part, because we don’t realize that we are not invincible and take on things that we shouldn’t have to take on.

We set ourselves up for chronic stress because we don’t really know that it is possible to live well without stress. We think that chronic stress is the way everyone lives and we let the stressors of others add onto our own stressors. This is called suffering from “secondhand stress.”

The Function of Acute Stress

Acute stress is adaptive. It is in place so we can be aware of dangerous situations around us and so we can be motivated to handle things that come our way. If we didn’t have acute stress, we wouldn’t have the reflexes to avoid the person trying to cut us off on the road and we wouldn’t be able to handle and unruly customer or coworker.

During acute stress, our hypothalamus identifies a stressor and releases signals that tell the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine. These “fight or flight” hormones allow the blood pressure to go up, increase sugar in the bloodstream for use as brain fuel so we can think clearly and act appropriately, and shunt blood away from the digestive system and other core organs so that it can be used to strengthen the muscles if they are needed to fight or flee from an aggressive situation.

Acute stress has a purpose when we are really encountering something dangerous. It is what our ancestors thousands of years ago used in order to survive attacks from dangerous animals or to attack animals for use as food. It was a necessary part of living in the Stone Age when there were real dangers out there and a need to use the fight or flight response on a daily basis.

Chronic Stress Today

Now there are fewer real dangers out there, the stress response becomes maladaptive. For example, we might see our boss as a danger and might feel the fight or flight response whenever we are called into the boss’s office. This becomes chronic stress when we begin to worry about the boss even when we are not around him/her.

In the case of relationships that are stressful, we are always on guard and are always expecting an argument or other type of relationship trouble. We stay in the relationship because we think things will get better or we won’t get any better from someone else. In such cases, we put ourselves in the way of chronic stress without realizing the effect it has on our bodies.

Chronic stress can lead to heart disease and stress on the heart because our heart rate and blood pressure are always up and the blood sugar is elevated above normal much of the time. Stress contributes to high blood sugar and insulin resistance so that people who live under chronic stress live with the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a risk factor for atherosclerotic heart disease including stroke, peripheral vascular disease, and heart attacks. When we live under situations of chronic stress, we don’t know anything different and we don’t often see the connection between being sick all the time and the stress we’re under.

Chronic stress also adds to high cortisol levels. Cortisol is released by the adrenal cortex and its function in acute stress is to raise blood sugar for fuel and to reduce the function of the immune system temporarily.

When cortisol is continued to be elevated, it contributes to diabetes and to having a higher risk of getting sick from viruses like colds and flu. Cortisol, which is supposed to be helpful to us in the short run, becomes our biggest enemy. It leads to chronic diseases that, once we get them, we can’t get rid of them, even when the stress becomes less.

Fighting off Stress

We can’t reduce all of the stress in our lives, but we can do something about coping with chronic stress. We can take the time to exercise, which releases endorphins and makes us feel better. We can practice meditation or yoga in order to help reduce feelings of stress on a daily basis.

We can set limits on being around stressful people so we don’t get secondhand stress. There is much we can do to decrease the stress in our lives once we recognize it and do what it takes to eliminate those things that it is possible to eliminate, using healthy tactics to cope with what we can’t avoid.