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The most common and most recognizable form of stress, the kind of sudden jolt in which you know exactly why you’re stressed: you were just in a car accident; the school nurse just called; a bear just ambled onto your campsite. Or it can be something scary but thrilling, such as a parachute jump. Along with obvious dangers and threats, common causes of acute stressors include noise, isolation, crowding, and hunger. Normally, your body rests when these types of stressful events cease and your life gets back to normal. Because the effects are short-term, acute stress usually doesn’t cause severe or permanent damage to the body.
Some people endure acute stress frequently; their lives are chaotic, out of control, and they always seem to be facing multiple stressful situations. They’re always in a rush, always late, always taking on too many projects, handling too many demands. Unlike people for whom stress is a once-in-a-while spike, these folks are experiencing episodic acute stress.
According to the American Psychological Association, those prone to episodic acute stress include driven, hard-charging “Type A” personality types and worrywarts, always anxious about the next disaster they’re sure lurks around the corner. While the Type A tends to seem angry and hostile and the worrier more depressed, both are frequently over-aroused and tense, and both are susceptible to the physical manifestations of extended stress, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
If you’re prone to episodic acute stress, you may not know it or admit to it. You may be wedded to a life style that promotes stress. You may explain your frequent stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”), as integral to your work or home life (“Things are always crazy around here”), or as a part of your personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”). You may blame your frequent stress on other people or outside events, or you might view it as entirely normal and unexceptional. Unfortunately, people with episodic acute stress may find it so habitual that they resist changing their lifestyles until they suffer severe physical symptoms.
The APA Help Center describes chronic stress as “unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time.” Chronic stress is stress that wears you down day after day and year after year, with no visible escape. It grinds away at both mental and physical health, leading to breakdown and even death.
One of the most dangerous aspects of chronic stress is that people who suffer from it get used to it. They accept chronic stress as their lot in life, or they forget it’s there. Because chronic stress is based on long-term, often-intractable situations, both the mental and physical symptoms of chronic stress can be difficult to treat.
Severe stress reactions can result from a catastrophic event or intense experience such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, life-threatening accident, or participation in combat. After the initial shock and emotional fallout, many trauma victims gradually begin to recover. But for some people, the psychological and physical symptoms triggered by the trauma don’t go away, the body doesn’t regain its equilibrium, and life doesn’t return to normal. This is a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Common symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares about the trauma, avoidance of places and things associated with the trauma, hyper vigilance for signs of danger, chronic irritability and tension, and depression. PTSD is a serious disorder that requires professional intervention.