Situational Stress vs. Chronic Stress: A Primer
Stress is an emotional response to a real or perceived threat. Situational, or acute stress, occurs when you think, “I have to solve this problem or something bad is going to happen.” Chronic stress occurs when you can no longer see a way to solve the problem. Situational stress can cause short-term physical symptoms. However, chronic stress can lead to long-term health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Short-term situational stress
Imagine a college student cramming for an exam. Imagine sitting in traffic, knowing it could make you late for work. These situations can cause short-term worry or concern, which are forms of stress. However, these types of situations have an ending. You complete the task at hand or find a solution to the problem, and the stress dissipates.
This type of stress can cause temporary physical symptoms, such as:
You might also feel irritable and edgy. Usually, once the situation has resolved itself, your symptoms quickly disappear. Your body and mood return to normal and there aren’t lasting health consequences.
Even though situational stress is normally short-term, it can still cause problems. You might find it difficult to concentrate or find you are unable to make a decision. You might feel light-headed. For some people, stress can trigger a panic attack. If you only experience this type of stress occasionally, relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can help. Exercise can also reduce stress levels.
If, however, you experience this type of stress on a regular basis (not from an ongoing situation, but you find that you easily become stressed), it might help to work with a therapist to find additional ways to reduce your stress levels.
Chronic stress occurs when you live through a stressful situation day in and day out. Maybe you are in an unhealthy relationship, or you have a demanding job -- or a job you despise. Maybe you care for a sick relative, have financial problems, or have difficult neighbors. When you have chronic stress, you often don’t see a solution to the problem or have stopped looking for one. You feel stuck. Because of this, chronic stress can sometimes lead to depression.
Occasionally, chronic stress results from traumatic childhood experiences. It can also happen if you were taught a narrow or negative view of the world, e.g., “The world is a dangerous place,” or “Everyone is out to get you,” or “Don’t trust anyone.” You might carry these sentiments with you throughout your life, making every situation stressful.
Because there isn’t an end to your high stress levels, your body remains in a stressful state. You become used to feeling stressed and stop noticing the tight muscles, headaches, or other physical symptoms. When this happens, you stop looking for ways to de-stress; you see this as your normal state. This can cause long-term health problems, and you are at risk of developing depression or an anxiety disorder.
People with high levels of chronic stress are also at risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other long-term health conditions. Some people don’t even realize they have chronic stress until they seek medical attention for a related physical problem.
Treatment for chronic stress can include a thorough physical exam can determine if you have any medical conditions that need addressing, while a therapist can help with both behavioral treatment and ongoing stress management.
Fact Sheet on Stress: National Institute of Mental Health
Stress: The different kinds of stress: American Psychological Association