Understanding stress can help you know more quickly when you need help.
Stress is our built-in response to danger, a surge in hormones as we choose between fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The danger may be real or imagined, immediate or farther away; our bodies don’t know the difference.
According to the American Psychological Association, the three types of stress — acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress — can all make us feel out of sorts or even ill, but chronic stress is often ignored.
Acute Stress. You know the feeling when you’re behind on a seemingly all-important deadline and then you get a call from your child’s school asking you to come by or you barely miss a serious car accident.
Your heart might race and your blood pressure might rise. Your sense of emergency might trigger a migraine or even chest pain.
Other possible symptoms include irritability, anxiety, sadness, headaches, back pain, and gut problems. These may appear for a short time and subside when the stress eases.
Our minds extend acute stress. A recent argument may replay in your mind, keeping you up at night. Or you might keep worrying about the future, a deadline ahead. You might benefit from learning techniques to calm your mind, but stress isn’t interfering with your relationships or career.
Episodic acute stress. Some people experience these mini-crises regularly and live in a state of tension. They may be taking on too much or simply be overburdened by their lives. If you tend to worry, your body will be tense or angry.
The symptoms are similar but occur more often and accumulate.
Maybe your company is poorly managed and your boss is stressed out, passing along emergencies to you. Those tight deadlines keep cropping up.
In modern life, we often can’t take big, immediate actions to solve our problems. Instead, we can take small steps that build up over time.
You might need to spend more time getting physical exercise while rethinking your finances in case you need to quit. You might need the help of a therapist to change your circumstances or your responses to them.
Over time, a pattern of episodic acute stress can wear away at your relationships and work.
That risk is greater if you turn to unhealthy coping strategies like binge drinking, overeating, or clinging to bad relationships. Many people also slowly give up pursuing pleasurable activities or meaningful goals.
If poorly managed, episodic acute stress can contribute to serious illnesses like heart disease or clinical depression.
Chronic stress. This is the grinding stress that wears us down over the years. It arises from serious life problems that may be fundamentally beyond our control: poverty, war, or racism.
The demands are unrelenting and you don’t know when they will stop. You get by day by day.
If you had a traumatic childhood, you may experience life as chronically stressful even when the surface appears okay. You believe you are perpetually threatened by poverty or illness even when this is untrue.
Whether the cause lies in your mindset or difficult circumstances, many people stop fighting for change and begin to accommodate chronic stress.
It is important to get all the help you can and not blame yourself — blame will only grind you down further. Chronic stress feeds chronic and acute serious illness.
How can you actually use this information? When you’re overwhelmed, making distinctions — how bad is it really? — may feel impossible or unsympathetic. But distinguishing between these three types of stress will help you see your own circumstances clearly. Are you overreacting, seeing a temporary situation as permanent? Or have you been ignoring the signs for years? Again, blame won’t help. Knowing the three types should also help you find perspective and feel more compassion for other people who are under stress.
A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.