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Acute and Chronic Stress: Understanding and Prevention

“Jeez, my stress level is through the roof today” or “I am stressed up to the eyeballs right now” – everyone has probably uttered statements like these at some point. Somehow, stress seems to be part of life. Hardly anyone actually wants to have it around, but a certain amount of stress can be beneficial. In this blog article, we’ll tell you how acute and chronic stress differ, what effects stress has on you, and how to avoid suffering from chronic stress.

» Stress is the spice of life. «

Hans Selye

A little pinch of stress

The stress researcher and doctor Hans Selye described stress as “the spice of life”. Just as a good meal is bland if it lacks seasoning, a life without phases of tension seemed boring to him.

The literal meaning of the word stress is akin to “tension” or “pressure”. But how much spice can one life handle? How much stress is tolerable? And how do we differentiate between acute stress and chronic stress?

Acute stress

A challenge at work, preparing for an upcoming birthday party or Christmas festivities: short-term periods of stress in our professional or private lives can trigger acute stress. Aside from not being harmful to our health, this kind of stress actually sharpens our senses, increases adrenaline levels and thus enhances our performance, helping us to successfully overcome challenges.

Sometimes we even surpass ourselves. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of crashing on the sofa at the end of the day, exhausted but satisfied, after reaching a milestone at work or hosting a fabulous birthday party. You are proud of what you’ve achieved and all the stress just melts away.

Usually your body quickly returns to a normal base level of tension. These phases of recovery are important. Because if acute tension doesn’t subside and the relaxation phases don’t occur, chronic stress can develop.

Chronic stress

When more and more stress factors accumulate and there’s no let-up in the tension, we call it chronic stress. There is no clear time frame for this. In some cases, the stress stems from major burdens such as financial or health worries or a never-ending pile of tasks at work. In other cases, however, you might just feel stressed without knowing why. Even small or barely noticeable sources of stress such as the noise from the construction site across the street, household chores or getting a puncture when cycling to work can add up to a permanently elevated stress level.

Even positive events such as the birth of a child or an upcoming wedding can become a burden over time and contribute to rising stress levels.

Being chronically stressed and overwhelmed can lead to health problems and increase the risk of physical or mental illnesses.

What are the impacts of chronic stress?

Our body responds to stress. In times of acute stress, our brain releases adrenaline and noradrenaline to boost our performance. At the same time, cortisol is released, which has an anti-inflammatory effect and reduces our susceptibility to infections. With chronic stress, however, this effect is reversed. The immune system is inhibited, we are more prone to getting sick, our performance suffers and our mood deteriorates.

The way each individual responds to stress varies. For example, while one person may forget to eat in times of stress, another may eat a lot when they are feeling stressed out. Other symptoms of excessive stress can include problems falling asleep, inner restlessness, irritability and even stress rashes on the skin. 

Preventing chronic stress

Do you want to reduce stress, but don’t know how? To prevent acute stress from developing into chronic stress, you can consciously practice a few preventive techniques. By lowering your overall stress level, you will help to ensure that whatever major and minor burdens life throws at you won’t derail you so easily.

Give yourself a dose of downtime

Acute stress generally does no harm and can even help you to perform at your best. After a few days, however, the tension should ease again. Consciously pay attention to these recovery phases. Don’t rush straight into the next project; allow yourself and your body to come to rest. Prescribe yourself a dose of downtime.

Taken once a day, it will boost your health. The time cost is yours to bear, but it’s relatively small – and the investment is well worth it. 

Pay attention to minor sources of stress

When we look for causes of chronic stress, we often seek to identify major burdens. Work, financial worries and relationship problems quickly draw our attention, whereas “minor” stresses such as a lack of sleep or insufficient time for hobbies often go unnoticed. Yet it is precisely these minor stress factors that can often be remedied more quickly. Even if you feel like a good gym session or a few more early nights are just a drop in the ocean, if you lower your baseline stress, you will be more resistant to other pressures.

Managing stress with HelloBetter

If you want to learn more about how to manage stress and lower your stress levels, our HelloBetter course Stress Management could be right for you. As you progress through the course units, you will learn effective methods of managing stress and take active steps to prevent chronic stress.

Do you speak German? Then our online course Stress and Burnout might be interesting for you as well. You can get this course on prescription. This means that your German health insurance will cover the costs.

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.