Acute Stress: The Body's Response

Acute stress activates the fight or flight response preparing the body for emergency.

The stress response has positive effects on the body but is also associated with a number of stress-related illnesses.

Have you ever felt your heart pounding before a big race?

Do you break out in a cold sweat at the sound of the dentist’s drill?

What about those butterflies in your stomach or your dry mouth before an important exam or presentation?

These are some of the signs of stress.

Here we talk about the acute stress response, its positive effects on the body, and how this type of stress can cause stress-related illnesses.

What is acute stress?

acute stress

Imagine you are driving down the road, the windows are down and the sun is shining.

What a great day!

You put on your indicator and look over your shoulder as you are changing lane.

Suddenly a 6 ton truck blasts its horn as it bears down on you.

The screech of tires and the smell of rubber as the truck’s tires grip the road...

In a split second, your fight or flight response is activated.

The muscles, nerves, and glands are mobilized as adrenaline kicks in!

You grip the steering wheel, slam on the breaks, and swerve.

Your heart is pumping and muscles are tensed - all typical symptoms of stress as you narrowly avoid a collision.

This stress response has saved your life!

Your body has put all hands on deck to deal with the life-threatening stress.

This mobilization of the body’s resources occurs whenever the stress response is activated.

This type of stress is intense in nature but short in duration.

Typical examples include:

  • entering a burning building
  • rescuing a person
  • witnessing a car crash
  • being chased by a dog
  • experiencing a natural disaster.

Acute stress symptoms

In the example above, as the truck sounded its horn and you swerved to avoid a collision, a number of things were going on in your body.

Some of these were:

  • Increased heart rate and high pressure increase.

    The heart starts to work harder, pumping more blood around the body to supply more oxygen and nutrients.

  • Increased breathing rate.

    The body anticipates the extra oxygen requirements for the fight or flight response and the breathing rate increases.

  • Muscles contract.

    In preparation for the fight or flight, the muscles contract. Increased muscle tension is a typical stress symptom.

  • Digestion stops.

    The digestion shuts down to divert the body’s resources to large muscle groups needed for the fight or flight.

  • Adrenaline and noradrenaline are released.

    The adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline maintaining the stress response.

    At the same time there are a number of effects of cortisol and stress on the body.

  • Increased perspiration.

    The body turns on its cooling system in anticipation for increased energy use in the fight or flight reaction. This increased skin conductance is examined in various biofeedback therapy for stress.

The Stress Response and the Autonomic Nervous System

This stress response is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

After the stressful event the parasympathetic nervous system brings the back to its normal state.

This is known as the relaxation response.

The relaxation response can be enhanced with these relaxation techniques.

How does stress affect health?

The stress response serves an important function.

In the past, the caveman who narrowly escaped the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger, thanks to the stress response lived another day.

In the traffic example above, without the stress response your reaction may have been slower and you may not have slammed on the brakes or swerved in time to avoid a collision.

The stress response helps us to fight, flee, or adapt to the causes of stress. In most cases it serves a positive function. After the period of stress the body returns to its normal state.

However, acute stress can become a problem when:

  1. Acute stress is activated too often.

    Frequent activation results in chronic stress which gives the body less and less chance to rest and recuperate.

    how does stress affect health? The process known as the general adaptation syndrome illustrates the short and long-term effects of stress.

  2. Acute stress is activated too often and too intensely.

    This can result in a number of anxiety disorders in which your anxiety levels are irrational and affect your life.

    Some of the anxiety conditions include:

Related stress management articles

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Stress and Depression and Anxiety

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A Contemporary Stress Definition

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Eustress: Not All Types of Stress are Bad for You

Physical Effects of Stress The Warning Signs and Symptoms of Stress

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