Have you ever seen that commercial where the elephant sits on a man's chest making it super hard for him to breathe? Well, the three types of stress can make you feel like that. When you've got a big fat elephant sitting on your chest, it can be overwhelming, and it definitely makes it tough to breathe.
But the truth is, stress can be even worse than that.
In fact, stress can lead to many serious health problems, and yes, even death. Athletes, in particular, can suffer from all three types of stress. And sometimes that can be a good thing. Putting pressure on your muscles in a killer gym workout, for example, is an excellent way to strengthen your body and make you better at your sport.
However, if you try to bench press a thousand pounds, chances are you're going to get seriously injured.
The same holds for other life stressors.
Knowing what you're dealing with though, and being able to identify which of the types of stress you are experiencing is a big step to managing it.
Now let's take a closer look at that elephant.
First, Let's Address the Elephant in the Room
We all experience it. It's impossible to avoid. Sometimes it can be extremely beneficial. It could even save your life. But there's also a significant downside. And the truth is, it can kill you.
The elephant in the room is stress.
Merriam-Webster defines the types of stress as strain or pressure in response to something demanding. You can also look at it as a standard response by your body to change. That response by your body can be physical, mental, or emotional.
The problem with the term stress is that it is a very subjective thing. Your response to stress could be very different from my own.
Even the stressor itself can be subjective.
Imagine that you and I ride the Nitro roller coaster at Six Flags. You love roller coasters so you will respond to the ride one way. On the other hand, I'm terrified of roller coasters, and I happen to know that Nitro is one of the scariest coasters in the country. You can probably guess that my reaction to the ride will be completely different than yours.
However, even with the variations and the subjectivity of stress, there are some things that we know from the research. One of those things is that it can be extremely harmful to your health.
In the 1930s, researchers found that laboratory animals exposed to one of the types of stress, called acute stress, all had the same pathological changes which included stomach ulcerations, enlargement of the adrenal glands, and shrinkage of lymphoid tissue.
We've also known since the 1930s that one of the other types of stress is even worse.
Laboratory animals exposed to prolonged, or chronic stress ended up with various diseases like heart attacks, kidney disease, stroke, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The same holds for humans.
Is there an upside to stress?
Most people view stress as a negative thing. But believe it or not, there is also an upside to stress.
For one thing, it can keep you alert. It can also motivate you and help you to avoid danger.
I know it sounds crazy that stress could save your life. But it's true. Think about driving in heavy traffic during a downpour. Stressful, right? Then picture some lunatic pulling out in front of you and slamming on their brakes. Your heightened sense of alertness allows you to react quickly and swerve out of the way to avoid a collision.
The point that stress becomes negative is when you experience continuous challenges without any relief between stressors. When that happens, your body becomes overworked, and the tension related to stress builds.
Like the example that I just gave you with avoiding a car crash, your body's autonomic nervous system has a stress response built into it. That stress response, which is also known as the "fight or flight response," causes physiological changes that allow your body to manage stressful situations. We activate that response in cases of emergency.
However, during long periods of non-stop stress, the stress response becomes chronically activated. That prolonged activation is what causes harm to your body. It can also hurt you emotionally and mentally.
The Real Dangers for All 3 Types of Stress
Over time, the long-term health complications for all three types of stress can be severe. Some health conditions caused by stress include heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, a weakened immune system, and gastrointestinal disorders.
On top of that stress can also cause respiratory infections, skin problems, autoimmune diseases, burnout, and insomnia. It can even cause PTSD, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Yes, really!
The 3 Main Types of Stress
The American Psychological Association identifies the three types of stress as acute, episodic acute, and chronic. All three of these types of stress are different with different characteristics, duration, symptoms, and management techniques.
Let's take a closer look at each one individually.
1. Acute stress
When we're talking about types of stress, the most common is acute stress.
A close call in traffic or a public speaking engagement are the types of things that can trigger acute stress.
Imagine being up to bat in a playoff game at the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and a tied score. Talk about stress! But you can see how that kind of acute stress could motivate you to hit the game-winning homer.
In minimal doses, acute stress can be exciting and thrilling. Too much, on the other hand, can be exhausting and even dangerous.
Have you ever gone snow skiing? Do you know how that black diamond run first thing in the morning is exhilarating and super fun? Now imagine skiing that same brutal black diamond at the end of a full day on the slopes. Suddenly the same run becomes exhausting and taxing.
Acute stress is short-term. And just like overdoing it on the slopes, overdoing short-term stress can lead to psychological distress and symptoms like headaches and upset stomach.
The good thing about acute stress, compared to the other types of stress, is that it's relatively harmless. The mere fact that it is short-term means that it doesn't have enough time to do any real damage.
How to combat acute stress
As I said a minute ago, of all of the types of stress, acute stress does the least long-term damage to your body. But knowing that doesn't make it any easier to deal with when you're running late to an important meeting and then get stuck in a traffic jam.
There are, however, some things that you can do while you're sitting in your car freaking out that will relieve some of that stress.
First, take a deep breath. I know it sounds way too simplistic, but there's a reason that you should do it. A few deep breaths will both slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. It's true!
And even better than that, when your breathing slows down and matches your heart rate, your brain will then release endorphins which have the natural effect of calming.
Some other things that you can do to combat acute stress are to play some music or take a walk. It also helps if you can ground yourself. Closing your eyes and slowly counting backward from 20 is one grounding technique you can use.
When all else fails, laugh. Yep. You read that right. Laugh, even if it's at yourself. Laughing is one of the best stress relievers around. Try it.
2. Episodic acute stress
You've heard of "Type A" personalities, right? Type As tend to have a super competitive drive. Many athletes fall into this category. Type As are also often aggressive, impatient, and have a heightened sense of time urgency.
There are plenty of good things associated with being a type A, but one of the downsides is that they are always stressed out. That brings us to the next of our types of stress: episodic acute stress.
Episodic acute stress happens when someone has frequent bouts of one of the other types of stress: acute stress.
Episodic acute stress is prevalent in people with a Type A personality. You probably know people like this. Do you have a friend or family member who is always in a rush but is constantly late? Do they seem to live in constant chaos, continually having too many irons in the fire? Often these people describe themselves as having too much nervous energy.
People who have episodic acute stress also tend to show hostility toward others, and they have strained personal relationships.
Other people who suffer from episodic acute stress are people that we call worrywarts. Are you a pessimist who is always looking for another disaster around every corner? Then you probably deal with episodic acute stress too.
How to combat episodic acute stress
Of all of the types of stress, this one can be the most difficult to treat. The reason for that is most people who suffer from episodic acute stress have personality traits that are so ingrained and habitual that they don't see any problem with the stress. They also don't see anything wrong with their lifestyle.
Instead, they tend to look to others or external events as the cause of their woes.
The two ways to combat episodic acute stress are lifestyle changes and professional help. These people could be resistant to both of those things. Often the only thing that drives them to seek help is the promise of relief from the pain and discomfort of their symptoms.
3. Chronic stress
The most dangerous of the three types of stress is chronic stress. Remember how I said that small amounts of acute stress could be exciting and exhilarating? Well, there's no good side to chronic stress. In fact, it can be a killer.
Have you ever felt trapped in a terrible situation like maybe a bad marriage, or a job that you hate, or even a desperate financial situation? That's chronic stress that you felt. It's the kind of pressure that just grinds you down day after day, year after year.
It's also the worst of all of the types of stress for your overall health. If you've ever felt it, then you know that it wears you down, both physically and mentally.
Your body releases stress hormones whenever you experience any of the three types of stress. But they do the most damage to your health with chronic stress because of the long-term exposure. That overexposure to the stress hormones leads to many health issues.
The worst part of chronic stress is that it goes on for so long that people actually get used to it. Believe it or not, as horrible as chronic stress is, people forget that it's there.
Unlike the other types of stress which are relatively easy to recognize, chronic stress becomes old and familiar. For some people it even becomes comfortable. That makes it much harder to notice.
Above, I told you that chronic stress could be a killer. That's not an exaggeration. Chronic stress can kill you through suicide, heart attack, stroke, violence, and, perhaps, even cancer. Over time people wear down to what could be a final fatal breakdown.
How to combat chronic stress
Of the three types of stress, chronic is one of the most difficult to manage. Because your mental and physical resources get so depleted with long-term non-stop stress, the symptoms of chronic stress can be extremely difficult to treat.
Often chronic stress requires extended medical and behavioral treatment. If you want to live a healthy life, then stress management is a must.
A Final Thought
We all deal with stress. For some of us, it can be debilitating. It doesn't have to be though. With stress management, you can not only better handle your stress, but you can also thrive despite it.
Think about this:
Some stress management techniques include eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Other things you can do are get enough sleep, use relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation, and spend time with loved ones. Try finding a new hobby and make the time to enjoy it.
Or maybe try volunteering somewhere or talking to a friend or a doctor. And finally, stop taking yourself so seriously. Laugh a little. Even better, laugh a lot!
Stress is definitely the elephant in the room that people don't like to talk about too much. Seeing that giant standing there can feel overwhelming. But you really can manage that elephant. You know how to eat an elephant right? You eat it one bite at a time.
Now we'd love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments section below how you deal with stress. And share with our readers if you have any great stress management techniques.