There are different types of stress, defined by the duration and intensity experienced.
Acute stress is stress that lasts only for a short period of time. This includes situations such as sitting an exam, starting a new job, giving a speech, or being faced with a work deadline.
The body typically bounces back well from acute stress if the stress experienced is managed by the person. Acute stress in the form of mild challenge can even be beneficial as it provides the brain and body a chance to ‘practise’ its adaptive response in preparation for future challenges.
However, if the stress experienced is severe or presents a life-threatening situation, such as being the victim of an assault, for some people, such an acute stress can lead to significant mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Chronic stress is stress that continues for a long period of time and does not go away. This can occur in circumstances such as ongoing financial difficulties, social isolation and loneliness, relationship problems, chronic health problems, caring for someone with complex needs, overwork, bullying, or living in an unsafe environment such as a war zone or where there is violence in the home.
Stress can also be cumulative, which means that when a number of stressors occur at the same time or one after the other and the person has not had the opportunity or time to recover, stress levels can rise and stay high.
When we face a stressful event, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Our breathing and metabolism speeds up. Our pupils dilate and we sweat more. These physical changes help us to react quickly and effectively to get us through stressful situations. These are the usual signs of acute stress. When stress stays high, additional symptoms can be experienced.
Symptoms of chronic stress include:
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