One trap many of us fall into is seeing stress as stress. It’s all the same, right? Nope!


Some believe that acute stress is just the short-term version of chronic or long-term stress. One’s the radio edit and one’s the concept album version: virtually the same just a longer playtime. But that’s not the case. This kind of thinking perpetuates our misunderstanding of what stress is, how it manifests and how we tackle it.


When faced with someone suffering long-term stress, those familiar with short-term stress may believe they’re similar ailments. The short-term sufferer might even get annoyed with the long-term sufferer because they’re unable to sleep or exercise or meditate their way out of it.


Yet these very behaviors – while effective in combating acute stress – will barely touch the sides for chronic stress sufferers. Here’s why.


What is acute stress?


Acute stress is a rapid, synthetic nervous-system response; aka the fight or flight response. Acute stress is common; very common. Yes, it can be unpleasant but acute stress is usually fleeting and even quite predictable. Once the stressor has disappeared or the intensiveness is over, the body recalibrates naturally.


That light, floaty feeling you get after a turbulent flight lands or your performance review is over – that’s your nervous system resetting, your body loosening, and easing. Hence the noun elation.


Acute stress can be physical, mental, and emotional. We can probably all identify with negative stress responses across all three: physical – headaches, mental – mind blank, emotional – anger or sadness. There are also positive acute stress responses: increased adrenaline can power greater physical feats and superior mental performance. For a short time, anyway.


Exiting acute stress can cause a reaction. Take students – many get sick at the end of exam season. They sit their last test and, after a frenzied month of cramming and sleeplessness, the muscles begin to relax, the brain resettles and the body resets. For the stress period, antibodies have been on heightened alert – fuelled by adrenaline (and probably caffeine, carbs, and sugar). But now they let their guard down and illness often follows. Exam fever, they call it.


The antidote to acute stress


With acute stress, once the stressor has ended, the body usually rights itself naturally. One can also accelerate recovery with good sleep, exercise, meditating, relaxing, socializing, eating good food, or indeed eating junk food. Whatever works.


But when acute stress is left untreated for too long, and the body isn’t allowed to recalibrate, it transitions into chronic stress. Here’s where the problems really start.


Chronic stress


Chronic stress is a longer-term ailment. Whereas acute stress is a nervous system reaction, chronic is a bodily reaction. Chronic stress sets in once the adrenal glands begin secreting hormones. Here, the mind and body have to work overtime to process the additional load.


When the body begins to scream out – via aches, pains, muscular tightness, low mood, etc – it’s telling the sufferer it wants the stressors to cease; it wants to draw back and recalibrate. But when life doesn’t allow for that, it continues to work overtime. That’s why executing even small tasks can seem like a herculean effort.


The sufferer constantly feels like they’re running on empty because, in a sense, they are. The body is expending extra energy processing the surge of hormones on top of the day-to-day grind.


With the adrenal glands pumping, the messages passed between mind and body get confused. We begin to reach for fixes. Think sugar, caffeine, oversleeping, alcohol, vegetating, laying low.


The negative stress cycle


Chronic stress is identifiable when the sufferer gets sucked down into the vortex of the negative stress cycle. Here, stress begins to chip away at a person’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The sufferer gets lost on a sorry cycle of low mood, poor quality sleep, comfort eating, lethargy, and isolation … rinse and repeat.


Chronic stress sufferers tend to compound their situation by cutting out things that might help (seeing friends, self-care, exercise). The extra effort feels like additional stress. When we reach for pleasure fixes – alcohol, drugs, sex, cigarettes, junk food – our stress multiplies on account of physical pain (hangovers and comedowns) and mental pain (guilt and shame). Then there are the impacts on our health and our sleep.


The sufferer gets trapped on the roundabout. Each go-around piles on more stress, fatigue, and hopelessness than the last. And so it becomes ever-harder to stop the ride and get off.


The antidote to chronic stress


Once a person’s locked in a chronic stress state, remedies that help to alleviate acute stress (exercise, meditation, sleep) won’t provide the same relief. They might briefly ease the symptoms but don’t tackle the root.


Commonly, chronic stress sufferers need to make a change to their life situation, whether it’s their health, work, family, relationships, etc. This is where we lack understanding and compassion: we assume chronic sufferers people can pull themselves out of stress as acute sufferers can. We get frustrated when they don’t.


Chronic stress symptoms can be mentally, physically, and emotionally debilitating. And on top of the root-cause stressor(s), which are generally a big deal in the person’s life, the behaviors of the negative stress cycle compound the situation.


Moreover, chronic stress is a gateway to health problems. Not only is it a superhighway for illness – you’re 20% more likely to get colds and flu when you’re stressed – you’re also much more likely to tip into depression as the chemical imbalance begins to impede the flow of serotonin, the happy hormone.


So for those who have felt tense, wound-up, shut-down, or otherwise stressed for a period of weeks or months, you may be suffering chronic stress. When people tell you you can sleep or meditate your way out of it, it’s unlikely. You need to talk it out, look to the root, and make the kind of meaningful changes that’ll treat your condition, not its symptoms.

You need to engage some help – and at Soken that’s a huge part of what we do. As part of workplace wellness, we look after employees from all angles, providing programs of change that fit around lifestyle factors and make a real difference.