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Stress is your body’s response to certain situations. It is a subjective condition. Something that may be stressful for one person—speaking in public, for instance—may not be stressful for someone else. Not all stresses are “bad.” For example, graduating from college may be considered a “good” form of stress.
Stress can affect your physical health, your mental health, and your behavior. In response to stressful stimuli, your body turns on its biological response. Chemicals and hormones are released that are meant to help your body rise to the challenge. Your heart rate increases, your brain works faster, you have more focus, and you experience a sudden burst of energy. This response is natural and basic; it’s what kept our ancestors from falling victim to hungry predators.
Stress overload, however, can have harmful effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of Americans report suffering the health effects of too much stress, and 22 percent say they are under “extreme” stress. We cannot eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn to avoid and manage it.
No, not all stress is bad. In fact, it can be healthy because it helps us avoid accidents, power through unexpected deadlines, or stay clear-minded in chaotic situations. But stress is meant to be temporary. Once we’ve passed the “fight or flight” moment, our bodies should return to a natural state—heart rate slows, muscles release, breathing returns to normal. But the circumstances of chronic stress so many of us face as a result of the pressures and demands of our modern lives mean our bodies may frequently be in a heightened state with our heart pumping hard and our blood vessels constricted. Over time, these physiologic demands begin to take a toll on the body. This is the unhealthy side of stress.
Acute stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a new challenge, event, or demand—the fight or flight response. You may experience a biological response to cope with the pressures of a near-miss automobile accident, an argument with a family member, or a costly mistake at work. Acute stress isn’t always caused by negative stress; it’s also the experience you have when riding a roller coaster or having a person jump out at you in a haunted house.
Isolated episodes of acute stress should not have any lingering health effects. In fact, they might actually be healthy for you. Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.
Severe acute stress such as stress suffered as the victim of a crime or life-threatening situation can lead to mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder.
If acute stress isn’t resolved and begins to increase or lasts for long periods of time, it becomes chronic stress. Chronic stress can be detrimental to your health. It can contribute to several serious diseases or health risks, such as heart disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
The goal of stress management isn’t to get rid of it completely. That would be entirely impossible. In fact, stress can be healthy in some situations.
Instead, the goal is to identify a person’s stressors—what it is that causes him or her the most problems, or demands the most energy—and find ways to overcome the negative stress those things normally induce.
By managing chronic stress and episodes of acute stress, when possible, you can reduce your risks of stress-related illnesses and disease. You will also feel better, think more clearly, and relate with others better without the distraction of stress.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Jul 23, 2014: George Krucik, MD, MBA
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