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Understanding stress

Learn about the different types of stress—and how to cope with stress in your life.

Are you stressed?

Most everyone will answer yes to that question at one time or another. Family, work and other commitments can all bring occasional episodes of stress to our lives.

But some people are under almost constant stress. They may get so used to it that they hardly notice it—but it is still affecting their lives and their health.

Understanding the types of stress—and when you really need some stress relief—can help you protect your health.

Acute vs. chronic

Stress is the body's response to a challenging or dangerous situation. It might bring on physical changes such as sweating or a faster heart rate. Or it may cause you to concentrate on the source of the stress.

Some stress can be good—it keeps life exciting. Think of a time when you completed a major project or when you got married. Such events can create some stress, but it's often in a positive way.

But usually we think of stress as a negative feeling. It may be a mild stress brought on by a job interview or a visit from your in-laws, or it might be a major stress, such as a divorce or serious illness.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress generally falls into one of two major categories:

Acute stress arises from demands and pressures that may be real or anticipated. It may be thrilling and exciting. A deadline, a fender bender or a rush down the ski slope could each trigger a short period of acute stress.

Chronic stress is a constant stress that may last for years. A person who feels trapped in an unpleasant job or unhappy marriage, or someone who lives in poverty, may endure chronic stress. The situation often seems hopeless and unending.

Either type of stress can affect health, notes the APA. Acute stress may trigger temporary symptoms, such as anxiety, a tension headache, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension or a migraine.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can wear a person down and may contribute to major health problems such as heart attack, stroke and even suicide.

Stress busters

If you're feeling stressed, it's important to deal with it right away, before it has time to harm your health.

You might try some simple coping strategies such as deep breathing, taking time to exercise or talking with a friend.

It might also help to speak with a professional counselor or therapist who can help you discover more ways to cope with life's challenges.

Reviewed 3/4/2024

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