We all experience stress from time to time; it’s a normal part of being human. But if you’re struggling to switch off at the end of the day, or anticipate there being a lot of stress in your life moving forwards, this two-part series might help you to cope with it differently. This post is about the differences between acute and chronic stress, and the next post will be about ways to manage stress.
What is stress?
In the dictionary, stress is defined as:
“A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”
When your body identifies something as stressful or threatening (like a tiger hiding in the bushes, waiting to attack you) it releases hormones into your bloodstream that activate a response known as “fight or flight.” This prepares you to do one of two things: fight the tiger, or run away from it. Within this post we will be focusing on the fight or flight response, but freezing is also a common response to threatening things and can also happen to people - we don't always get much choice as to how our body responds to threat.
Here comes the science part…
Stress affects your autonomic nervous system. This system tends to act without you having to do anything, and regulates a lot of things in the body such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and arousal. The autonomic nervous system controls the flight or flight response, and is made up of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). They are in control of a variety of different processes, but the most important thing for us is that:
The SNS ACTIVATES the fight or flight response, and
The PNS DE-ACTIVATES it (by activating other responses, such as those needed to rest, and to digest food).
What happens in fight or flight?
When the fight or flight response kicks in, different hormones (such as ACTH, adrenaline and cortisol) are released by the brain, which result in the body preparing itself for action (to fight or run away). When this happens, the things that you might notice happening to your body include:
What is chronic stress?
When the body has been put under stress for a long time (through a situation that isn’t changing such as a stressful job, or a health condition such as chronic pain), you may notice symptoms of chronic stress occurring. These symptoms can include:
So that's the bad news...
The bad news is that stress is something that we can’t get rid of completely – it is likely that there will always be some stress in your life. The good news is that we can learn different ways to manage stress so that it no longer has such an impact on us.
Next week we'll be thinking about the ways in which we can manage stress. If this post has been useful to you, let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects