The Three Classes of Stress

by Ryan Wade

Stress is a Locked Door to Wellness

As kids, we were taught that boogeymen lurked in shadows and in the dark, always just beyond eyesight. And as children, while the stories were ethereal, their manifestations in our early psyches were not. As adults, stress has become that boogeyman. Threads interwoven both expectedly and unexpectedly throughout our lives, and just like our childhood boogeymen, stress comes with very real manifestations. Namely, our health.

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three different types of stress (this list, nor this post, includes a  discussion of distress versus eustress):

  1. Acute;
  2. Episodic Acute;
  3. Chronic.

Acute stress. This is stress that most people can personally identify with. We’ve all experienced it, whether it’s the thrill before heading down a technical ski slope, giving a presentation in class or at work, or walking past the school-yard bully in grade school. We might feel sick to our stomach, weakness in our knees, rapid heart rate, dry throat…and the list goes on. We know these symptoms.

Acute stress, in moderation, is not a bad thing. In fact, our bodies are primed for acute stress, with our entire sympathetic nervous system remaining always on high alert for a stressful situation. Acute stress is why zebras don't get ulcers (Sapolsky, 1994). It’s comes, it’s dealt with, and it goes.

Episodic acute stress. This stress is constant and reoccurring acute stress. It is the point where stress becomes pathological.

You know that person that is always rushing around and seeming to barely hold it together? Or that fiercely, excessively competitive person? How about that person that if something—if anything—can possibly go wrong it does? Maybe that person that is constantly worrying about what could go wrong, even when there is no perceptible threat? All of these personalities are representative of episodic acute stress, and all are hallmarked by a similar constant state of over-arousal.

Overtime, episodic acute stress can lead to “persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain and heart disease” (APA). Even those that perceive their stress as beneficial or even as something to strive towards (think a “worry-wort” or a high achieving Type-A personality) are not immune to the detrimental effects of episodic acute stress—no matter how glamorized by Hollywood or the Wall Street Journal.

Chronic stress. This is stress that, in the words of researchers Lyle H. Miller and Alma Dell Smith, “is the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year. Chronic stress destroys bodies, minds and lives.” This stress can be the result of episodic acute stress run completely out of control, and it can be the result of trauma (physical, emotional, and psychological), it can be the result of living in poverty, in war, or it can be the result of an unhappy relationship. In short, chronic stress is the stress of being hopeless. Of not seeing your way out.

What’s more is that people become used to chronic stress, so while the health effects of chronic stress are the greatest, chronic stress can also be the most difficult to recognize within oneself.

The detrimental health effects of chronic stress can begin to manifest as a greatly likelihood of “catching” the common cold , to male impotence (chronic stress is the primary cause of impotence), and it can end in death—an increased likelihood for cancer, suicide, coronary disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few).

As leading stress researcher and author Robert Sapolsky states , “The effects of chronic stress directly counteract improvements in medical care and public health…For so many conditions, stress is the major long-term risk factor. Everything else is a short-term fix.” That is, unless chronic stress is dealt with, medical interventions provide—at best—a temporary patch. 

Are you stressed? A clue into how widely stress can impact physical and mental health can be extrapolated from the emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms of stress ( Steve Bressert, Ph.D):

Signs of stress can include the following:

Sleep disturbance (insomnia, sleeping fitfully);

Clenched jaw;

Grinding teeth;

Digestive upsets;

Lump in your throat;

Difficulty swallowing;

Agitated behavior, like twiddling your fingers;

Playing with your hair;

Increased heart rate;

General restlessness;

Sense of muscle tension in your body, or actual muscle twitching;

Non-cardiac chest pains;

Dizziness, lightheartedness;

Hyperventilating;

Sweaty palms;

Nervousness;

Stumbling over words;

High blood pressure;

Lack of energy;

Fatigue.

Cognitive signs of stress include:

Mental slowness;

Confusion;

General negative attitudes or thoughts;

Constant worry;

Your mind races at times;

Difficulty concentrating;

Forgetfulness;

Difficulty thinking in a logical sequence;

The sense that life is overwhelming; you can’t problem-solve.

Emotional Signs of Stress Include:

Irritation;

No sense of humor;

Frustration;

Jumpiness, over-excitability;

Feeling overworked;

Feeling overwhelmed;

Sense of helplessness;

Apathy.

Behavioral signs of stress include:

Decreased contact with family and friends;

Poor work relations;

Sense of loneliness;

Decreased sex drive;

Avoiding others and others avoid you because you’re cranky,

Failing to set aside times for relaxation through activities such as hobbies, music, art or reading.

Identify with anything on the list? Not surprising. According to a 2014 report by the American Psychological Association , 77% percent say they frequently experience the physical symptoms of stress, 73 percent say they frequently experience the psychological symptoms of stress, and 33% say they are living with extreme stress.

Just as it is important to identify other—seemingly hidden—thieves of health and wellness ( such as sleep), it is important to identify, to locate, the areas of stress within our lives. As stated above, it is not that stress in inherently bad, because it's not, but the stresses of modern life are. If we keep those stresses as unknowns, there is little that can be done about them. You can't fix the leak you don't know about. But if we can identify the stress and the stressors, we can begin to form new strategies to reframe and solve that which is creating the stress.