All About Acute Stress

What You Should Know About Acute Stress

Acute stress isn't serious, but it can build up. Here's how to manage it.
Acute stress isn't serious, but it can build up. Here's how to manage it. Annie Engel/Cultura/Getty Images

There are several different types of stress, and not all of them are necessarily unhealthy.  Acute stress is one of the least damaging types of stress, which is good because it is also the most common type. We experience acute stress multiple times throughout the day. Acute stress is experienced as an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional or psychological.

These threats don't need to be intensely threatening—they can be mild stressors like an alarm clock going off, a new assignment at work, or even a phone call that needs to be answered when you're relaxing on the couch and your phone is across the room. Acute stress can also be more serious, like being pulled over for speeding, getting into an argument with a friend, or taking a test. The threat can be real or imagined; it’s the perception of threat that triggers the stress response. 

During an acute stress response, the autonomic nervous system is activated and the body experiences increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that produce an increased heart rate, quickened breathing rate, and higher blood pressure.

Blood is shunted from the extremities to the big muscles, preparing the body to fight or run away. This is also known as the fight-or-flight response.

Acute stress can be easily managed because it occurs and then it's over. It doesn't bring the toll on health that comes with chronic stress because it is possible and relatively easy to recover from acute stress—simple relaxation techniques can work quickly of your stress response doesn't resolve into a relaxation response on its own.

Repeated instances of acute stress, however, can bring more of a toll. Either multiple instances of different acute stressors (a series of unrelated stressful events) or repeated occurrences of the same acute stressors (experiencing the same stress repeatedly) can add up to a state of chronic stress where the body's stress response is constantly triggered. Because of this, it's important to have a stress management plan. The following steps can reduce the chances of having your acute stressors add up to more significant levels of stress.

Eliminate Stress When Possible

Cutting down on the little things that repeatedly stress you— your tolerations—can minimize your overall stress levels. You can also take other steps to minimize lifestyle stress. You can't eliminate all stress (nor would you want to), but you can cut out stress where possible and this can really add up.

Learn Relaxation Techniques That Work for You 

This means finding ways to relax your body and calm your mind. You can't always predict the stressors in your life, but you can reverse your stress response after you encounter these stressors.

Adopt Resilience-Building Habits 

Yes, certain habits can build resilience toward stress. These include meditation, exercise, and more. Taking on one of these habits (or several) can really help you to manage acute stress as well as chronic stress.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.