Types of stress

Last published 5 June 2020


Feeling stressed? Understanding why you feel the way you do — and what to do about it — is important.

This page explores what stress is and three common types of stress. Read on to learn what goes on in your body when you feel stressed and how to recognise each stress type.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s physical response to a real or perceived threat, demand, or danger.

When you feel threatened, your body releases stress hormones which prepare the body to respond. This is called the “fight or flight” response.

Stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, make your:

  • heart beat faster
  • muscles tighter
  • breathing faster
  • blood pressure higher
  • senses sharper

Sometimes a pressurised situation triggers a stress response. The situation may not actually put you in danger. But your body may react as if it does.

A stress response can be helpful in some situations. It can increase your performance. But sometimes it can be detrimental to your mental health.

Recognising the different types of stress — and how your body responds to them — can help you get help with stress when you need it.

Common types of stress 

There are three main types of stress. These are acute, episodic acute, and chronic stress. We explore each type of stress below.

Acute stress

The most common type of stress, acute stress, can be helpful in short doses. It is the body’s response to a recent or anticipated challenge or unexpected event.

Common symptoms of acute stress include: 

  • emotional distress
  • muscle tension
  • headache, back pain, or jaw ache
  • stomach upset
  • rapid heartbeat
  • raised blood pressure

Sometimes acute stress is more severe. For example, if you witness a crime or accident. Severe acute stress can lead to acute stress disorder or PTSD.

Occasional, moderate acute stress tends not to cause mental health problems. But if it starts to happen more often it may cause issues. This is called episodic acute stress and is explored below.

Episodic acute stress

Episodic acute stress is when a person experiences acute stress frequently.

If you have episodic acute stress, you may feel like you are always under pressure or that things are always going wrong. This can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.

Experiencing episodic acute stress symptoms may affect the way you behave towards others. Left untreated, episodic acute stress can lead to:

  • irritability
  • unintended hostility
  • relationship problems

Experiencing episodic acute stress may indicate the need to make some lifestyle changes. You may need to reduce the demands you make of yourself, or that others make of you.

If you think you may be experiencing episodic acute stress, speak to your doctor. The doctor can help you to find ways to manage this.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is ongoing stress resulting from long-term emotional pressure. For example, a stressful job, unhappy family situation, or money problems.

If you have chronic stress, your body experiences the fight or flight response too frequently to recover between episodes. This means your nervous system is constantly aroused, which is not good for your health.

Left untreated, chronic stress can cause physical health problems. Research links chronic stress to heart disease and problems with the immune system. Up to 43 percent of adults experience adverse health effects from stress.

Depending on your personal situation, you may not be able to change what’s causing your chronic stress. But it is possible to find ways to manage the effects chronic stress has on your health.

If you think you may have chronic stress, speak to your doctor. The doctor can help you find ways to manage stressors and symptoms.

Getting help to manage chronic stress will reduce the likelihood of it impacting your physical health.

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