Types of Stress

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 21, 2023
Types of Stress

There are three types of stress that take a big toll on your body. Understanding the differences can help you know if you need help. Learn more here.

Stress is your built-in response to danger, a surge in hormones as you choose between fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The danger may be real or imagined, immediate or some time away. Your body doesn’t know the difference.

According to the American Psychological Association, the three types of stress — acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress — can make you feel out of sorts or even ill, but people often ignore chronic stress.


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Acute stress

Acute stress is the most common type of stress and usually doesn’t last long. You know the feeling when you’re behind on a deadline, you get a call from your child’s school asking you to pick up your child, or you almost have a serious car accident.

Your heart might race and your blood pressure rise. Your sense of emergency might trigger a migraine or even chest pain.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Digestive problems

Your symptoms may appear for a short time but subside when your 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 can describe themselves as having “a lot of nervous energy.” They may be taking on too much or simply be overburdened by their lives.

If you tend to worry, your body will be tense. Other people walk around angry every day. Some people can be described as “worry warts,” who see disaster around every corner and are pessimistic.

The symptoms are similar to acute stress but occur more often and accumulate.

Maybe your company is poorly managed, and your boss is stressed, 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 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 it’s 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 you down over years. It arises from serious life problems that may be fundamentally beyond your control, such as poverty, war, racism.

The demands are unrelenting, and you don’t know when they will stop. You get by day to day.

If you had a traumatic childhood, you may experience life as chronically stressful even when the surface appears okay. You believe poverty or illness perpetually threatens you even when that is untrue.

Whether the cause lies in your mindset or difficult circumstances, many people stop fighting for change and 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.

What you can do

When you’re overwhelmed, making distinctions may feel impossible or unsympathetic. But distinguishing between the three types of stress will help you see your circumstances clearly. Are you overreacting, seeing a temporary situation as permanent? Have you been ignoring the signs for years?

Knowing the three types of stress should help you find perspective and feel more compassion for other people who are under stress, along with getting the right support if you need it.


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July 21, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN