What is Stress?
Stress is a typical reaction to adverse events in life. Like other uncomfortable emotions, such as sadness and anger, some stress can be part of a healthy mental state. However, people may struggle with stress if it becomes unmanageable. Without healthy coping mechanisms, stress can become disordered.
In life-threatening situations, stress can save lives. For example, cave dwellers experienced this pressure when large animals chased them. The famous fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, which helped the species continue. However, modern people do not face the same types of troubles.
Instead, we may feel the fight-or-flight instinct in response to relationship problems or difficulty at work. Because exposure to the stressor is prolonged, this can wear on a person and become unhealthy.
Three Types of Unhealthy Stress
Unhealthy stress can come in several different forms, including chronic, acute, and episodic. Some patients experience more than one type of stress, as well. With each of these types, the stress is intense enough to keep the client from living daily life as usual.
Each of these types of stress can cause physical ailments as well. Disordered stress can cause headaches, trouble sleeping, chest pain, weight fluctuations, and more.
What is Chronic Stress Disorder
People who have long-term stressors in their lives can have Chronic Stress Disorder. If someone has a high-pressure job, consistent relationship problems, or numerous financial difficulties, they can struggle with unhealthy stress levels nearly every day.
What is Chronic Stress?
A patient with chronic stress almost constantly experiences elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels. These feelings cause the patient to always feel on high-alert, have difficulty relaxing, and even develop anxiety disorders.
Chronic stress is typically a response to one or more long-term triggers. For example, someone with a chronically ill loved one may feel stressed more often than not in their daily lives. Over time, this becomes chronic stress that can have several physical and mental effects.
Signs of Chronic Stress
Someone with chronic stress disorder may exhibit several troubling symptoms. The build-up of stress over time may cause them to act out or behave differently than they used to.
While this disorder affects everyone differently, some common symptoms of chronic stress include:
- Extreme or unusual irritability
- Difficulty concentrating on daily tasks
- Frequent headaches
- Low self-esteem
- Changes in appetite and digestion
- Sleeping problems
- Feeling out-of-control
Chronic Stress Effects
The signs of chronic stress are just some of the things that this disorder can cause in the body. Over a long enough period, people with chronic stress may develop additional body and mind complications.
Without treatment, patients with chronic stress may develop:
- Anxiety disorders
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
- Memory disorders
- Digestive disorders
Acute Stress Disorder
Sometimes life presents challenges that bring on extreme stress all at once. When a patient witnesses a loved one’s death or feels the threat of injury to themselves or a loved one, they may develop acute stress disorder. For example, a severe trauma, such as being the victim of a violent crime, can trigger this type of stress.
What is Acute Stress Disorder?
Whereas chronic stress disorder is the response to an ongoing trigger, acute stress disorder is a continuing response to a one-time stressor. It is not the reaction a person has in the moment of trauma, which is often healthy and expected stress. Instead, the person carries that intensity of tension into the following days or weeks.
With acute stress disorder, the person may have elevated stress hormones to respond to an event for three days to one month. Less than three days of stress may be a normal reaction to an event. More than one month of this reaction may be an anxiety disorder.
Acute Stress Disorder Symptoms
Like other types of stress, acute stress disorder has both physical and emotional symptoms.
Although it varies between patients, people with acute stress disorder may present with:
- Emotional unresponsiveness
- Less awareness of the world around them
- Disassociation from reality
- Amnesia about the triggering event
- Flashbacks to the trauma in which they feel as though it’s happening again in real life
- Avoiding specific people or places
- Trouble sleeping
- Startling easily
Episodic Acute Stress Disorder
This type of stress commonly affects people that others refer to as “Type A.” Patients experience excessive stress in reaction to stimuli. Sometimes, stress is the result of unrealistic expectations of themselves. Like with acute stress disorder, the emotions are intense and not chronic. However, the triggers are different.
What is Episodic Acute Stress Disorder?
Someone with episodic acute stress disorder experiences intense stress and life-or-death feelings in response to relatively mundane stressors. Although others may call these people “overly dramatic,” they just do not understand that Episodic Acute Stress Disorder is a real disease. Furthermore, the person with the disorder feels genuine stress that may make them think these situations are life-or-death.
For example, someone may miss a deadline at work and immediately begin having an outsized reaction. Even if the person’s boss is not too angry, the patient may start thinking that she will lose her job, become homeless, and die on the streets. To her, the panic is a reasonable reaction, but in reality, it is hurting her.
Signs of Episodic Acute Stress Disorder
It can be difficult for people with this disorder to get the treatment they need because they feel like the stress is the right reaction, and their support system may dismiss the symptoms.
Some signs of episodic stress include:
- Irritability or uncontrolled anger
- Rapid heartbeat
- Panic attack
- Heartburn and other gastrointestinal troubles
- Muscular pain and tightness
Left untreated, episodic acute stress can lead to larger health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Frequent headaches
Treatment Options for Disordered Stress
Professionals may start by ruling out other disorders that can cause similar symptoms. They may also complete full psychiatric evaluations to determine the patient’s level of care needs. This process helps doctors decide if a person needs in-patient care for their safety.
With a correct diagnosis in mind, therapists can help patients identify healthy and unhealthy stress levels to serve as benchmarks. Then, they work together to come up with coping strategies.
Cognitive Therapy for Stress Management
The most popular form of stress management therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). With CBT, patients learn to identify unhealthy stress at the moment. They can then use the coping strategies they learn in therapy to overcome the adverse reactions. Patients reroute their thinking, which leads to healthier behaviors.
Lifestyle Changes for Stress Management
Therapists and psychiatrists may also recommend lifestyle changes as part of stress management therapy. For example, someone may have too much stress because they do not delegate their daily tasks. Their therapist can help them identify which things they can let go of and allow someone else to complete them. Similarly, a therapist may recommend physical exercise as a way to work through the stress.
Medication as Part of Stress Management
When someone experiences severe stress, psychiatrists may recommend medications for relief. Psychiatrists provide medication management for stress sparingly, as they can be addictive. However, the benefits may outweigh the risks in certain situations.
Telehealth for Stress
Those dealing with acute stress disorder can still receive therapy if they cannot get to our offices. LifeStance offers teletherapy, the latest mental health care innovation, which allows patients to receive care via the internet. This HIPAA-compliant treatment delivers the same care level as an in-office session and is designed to ensure patient privacy.
Being at home doesn’t have to mean missing an important session, especially in acute care scenarios. If you would like to explore your teletherapy options, get in touch with us today. We can discuss teletherapy with you and set you up with what you need for your first session right away.