Define Acute Stress

Woman stuck in traffic

If you were asked to define acute stress, would you know what to answer? If not, you are among the many people that are not certain of the term's meaning.

What is Acute Stress?

Acute stress is your body's reaction to a threat that it perceives as immediate whether the threat is real or imagined. The perception of the threat, rather than the threat itself, triggers an automatic reaction in your body known as the fight or flight response.

An episode of acute stress comes on very quickly and intensely. It only lasts a short time and then the stress dissipates as your body relaxes from the effects of the changes that took place as a result of the fight or flight response.

The Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight response causes physical and physiological changes to take place in your body. The changes that occur are getting your body to either fight the perceived threat or flee from it. This automatic reaction is a primitive built in response to dangerous situations that is a protective safety mechanism and is known by the following names:

  • Hyper arousal
  • Acute stress response
  • Stress response
  • Fight, flight or freeze response
  • Fright, fight or flight response

The fight or flight response is easier to understand if you put yourself in the situation of a caveman facing a perceived danger of being attacked by a wild animal. Your body automatically readies you to fight the animal or run away from it. Although today's stressful situations do not include encounters with wild animals, the fight or flight response is automatic when a stressful situation occurs.

The following physical and physiological changes take place in your body when the fight or flight response is activated:

  • Respiratory rate increases taking in more air to supply the body with more oxygen
  • Heart rate increases pumping more oxygen rich blood throughout the body
  • Blood pressure goes up to carry the blood throughout the body more efficiently
  • The blood supply is shunted away from non-vital organs and sent to the heart, brain, lungs and limbs
  • Extra stores of glycerin in the liver breakdown supplying the body with glucose
  • Chemicals including cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream
  • Skin becomes cold and clammy
  • Vision becomes sharper
  • Pain perception diminishes

Chronic Stress

The fight or flight response is also activated in cases of chronic stress. The difference is that the body remains in the heightened state of arousal for long periods of time without getting a chance to relax. Chronic stress is ongoing and builds over time eventually causing damage to all of the organs and systems of the body. Examples of chronic stressors include:

  • Living in a dysfunctional family
  • Living with a chronic illness
  • Constantly worrying about paying bills
  • Taking care of aging parents
  • Constantly dealing with work stress and job pressure
  • Dealing with things such as traffic jams and rush-hour traffic on a daily basis
  • Living near a place such as an airport or train terminal that constantly produces loud noise

The Difference Between Acute Stress and Chronic Stress

The main difference between acute stress and chronic stress is the length of time your body is in the state of arousal. In cases of acute stress, your body's reaction to a perceived danger is quickly activated and dissipated. In cases of chronic stress, the stress reaction typically builds slowly over time until it is fully activated and remains on high alert for long periods of time eventually causing mental, physical and emotional damage.

How Do You Define Acute Stress?

If you are ever asked to define acute stress, you now know how to answer. Acute stress is defined as the activation of the fight or flight response that is activated quickly, lasts for a short period of time and dissipates.

Define Acute Stress