What Everybody Ought to Know About Acute Vs. Chronic Stress

Article based on scientific evidence

Humans were designed for acute, not chronic stress. But modern-day stressors persist. Steady suppression of the evolutionary fight or flight response is getting us stressed out.

Consequently, chronically high cortisol levels are causing mood swings, fat storage, and catabolic effects on our bodies.

Learn about the difference between acute vs. chronic stress, the effect of chronic stress, and how to start dealing with chronic stress today.

Acute Stress Reaction

The human body has a default reaction to acute stress situations – the fight or flight response. But in modern-day life, we can’t always perform this physical reactions due to numerous limitations.

Here’s a fight or flight response example. Let’s say our stone age ancestors were facing a wild animal showing up unexpectedly.

Consequently, they went through a whole cycle of neurological, biochemical, hormonal, and psychological reactions in a short period.

Seeing the thread coming up triggered the evolutionary fight or flight response. Therefore, the brain released stress hormones as part of the process.

Choosing flight, they could run away and survive. And at the end of the cycle, hormones returned to a healthy level.

Definition of Chronic Stress

Per definition, chronic stress is the feeling of emotional pressure over time with little to no control of the situation. Consequently, people are getting stuck in the middle of the fight or flight response cycle.

People are often mentally re-experiencing stressful events as omnipresent “what ifs.” Hence, they are supporting the chronic situation regularly. For example, that’s similar to how high blood sugar affects diabetes.

As a result, the body stores endocrine system responses, elevating the level of the primary stress hormone cortisol. Those denied fight or flight responses can add up to consistently high cortisol levels, stressing us out.

Chronic Stress and Cortisol

Chronically high cortisol levels are often called “flat” cortisol rhythm. That means levels do not rise in response to stress or fall in usually relaxing situations. Despite they might be within a “normal” range (Talbott 2007).

Likewise, research has obtained that flat cortisol exposure is an actual health problem. Hence, consistently low as well as high cortisol levels over 24 hours can be an indicator of disturbance of the endocrine system.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Nevertheless, it’s not easy to realize a chronic stress level. Because the term stress itself ranges from a mild sense of alertness to complete overwhelming induced by the push and pull of everyday life.

Thus, being stressed out is a lonely place at the end of the range where everyday challenges expand to unmanageable problems. Moreover, this state can transform emotional strain to physical strain.

Wooden figures on a checkerboard miming symptoms of chronic stress

If chronic stress persists, the ripple effects of our body’s stress response can lead to full-blown mental disorders like anxiety and depression. (Ratey et al. 2008).

Examples of Chronic Stress

For example, recurring things like mortgage payments, traffic jams, credit card bills, or project deadlines induce chronic stress.

In brief, chronic stress is a phenomenon of modern life. And it’s almost impossible to fight off or run away from those psychological stressors.

And that’s a significant difference between the evolutionary acute vs. chronic stress.

Acute Vs. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can be purely imaginary. Therefore, it’s a long-term health threat.

Consequently, additional effects of chronic stress are fat storage, low sex drive, brain shrinking, weakening of the immune system, or bad mood in general.

Acute adaptive stress responses are normal and healthy. Non-adaptive flat cortisol patterns, on the other hand, are likely to indicate stress overload.

Such a “bad” response rhythm promotes chronic stress symptoms like fat storing, fatigue, or fibromyalgia.

Hence, stress research shifted from measuring the altitude of cortisol levels to measuring the fluctuation pattern (Abercrombie et al. 2004).

According to science, flat cortisol patterns can cause the fat-storing system to overreact. Abdominal fat cells then observe high cortisol levels, while the rest of the body doesn’t. As a result, they store fat faster (Talbott 2007).

Nature designed humans to handle acute stressors for survival reasons. Instead, we primarily experience persistent psychological chronic stress.

For example, the comparison to animals shows that nature designed us for acute, not chronic stress. Similarly, animals get sick when exposed to everyday stress due to excessive fight or flight responses.

Moreover, they have problems shutting down a fight or flight response induced by modern-day-like stressors. Hence, there are clear parallels between humans and animals.

In short, chronic stress is the result of the inability to satisfy a specific demand. Unfortunately, modern life continually offers opportunities to set unattainable requirements that harm us.

Effect of Chronic Stress

To deal with acute stress cortisol stimulates the release of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose for energy generation. It triggers the breakdown of glycogen stored in the liver into glucose.

In adipose tissue, cortisol stimulates fatty acid release. That sounds like a fantastic effect since that’s the kind of fat we all want to melt away from a stress belly. But the long-term impact is fat gain.

Furthermore, cortisol can stimulate amino acid breakdown from skeletal muscles. Which is either directly consumed by other muscles or converted to glucose by the liver (Talbott 2007).

Nevertheless, we want to avoid this effect of chronic stress at all costs.

Brief cortisol spikes target acute immune-system activity and mental ability. We know this scenario as a typical fight or flight response.

But what happens in the case of persistently high cortisol levels might get you more worried.

Chronically high cortisol levels can have catabolic effects. That means the destruction of tissue and system breakdown. For example, bone loss, muscle loss, and brain shrinkage are possible effects of chronic stress.

Woman witnessing the effect of chronic stress at her work desk

Why Is Chronic Stress Dangerous

Long-term chronic stress inactivates the immune system protections system and causes immune cells to die. Besides that, it leads to weight gain due to the encouraging loss of muscle mass.

Cortisol’s energy provision also causes other effects of chronic stress that should be common sense. It fosters appetite and cravings. Because the body wants to refuel after releasing energy to cope with stress.

Consequently, chronically high cortisol levels will keep you hungry around the clock. That’s especially the case when you eat a lot of junk food high in sugar and starchy carbohydrates.

As it makes sense to face a fight or flight response efficiently, the body preferably stores the ingested energy in the abdominal region. Notably, belly fat is associated with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Given these points, here is a non-exhaustive list of chronic diseases found to be related to high cortisol levels by various researchers (Talbott 2007):

  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Decreased bone density
  • Increased body fat
  • Increased appetite and cravings
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Increased menopausal side effects (e.g., hot flushes)
  • Impairment immune response
  • Memory and learning impairment
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
A doctor lists the effects of chronic stress on paper

Treatment for Chronic Stress

Exercise is the simplest method to start treating chronic stress today.

Besides positive metabolic effects, physical activity increases the synaptic function of the brain. Likewise, it improves blood flow and the distribution of oxygen with it.

Exercise helps Mitochondria to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) more efficiently. These are power plants creating the intercellular energy source in our cells.

Workouts increase your fight or flight response’s threshold and kickstart the body’s cellular recovery program.

Furthermore, exercise allows neurons to meet fuel demands without increasing oxidative stress.

Working out disposes of broken bits of DNA, waste products of regular cellular activity, and aging. Moreover, the recovery process helps to prevent the onset of cancer and neurodegeneration.

Additionally, regular exercise as a treatment for chronic stress triggers the production of insulin receptors.

Consequently, cells are getting stronger and squeeze blood sugar out of the blood flow more easily.

That means sport is not just counteracting chronic stress. Because it also fights diseases based on insulin resistance like diabetes.

Physical activity increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the brain.

These chemicals inhibit the damaging effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels.

Furthermore, exercise helps neurons to bind, expands the vascular system, and builds new capillaries. In short, the brain is blooming and the highway for blood flow is optimized (Ratey et al. 2008).

Working out keeps cortisol levels in check. Additionally, it releases the regulatory neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

These are the anti-depression chemicals responsible for the “runner’s high.

Finally, regular exercise relaxes the resting tension of muscle spindles. Consequently, it breaks the stress feedback-loop to the brain. If the body is less stressed, the brain can decrease stress too.

A man running in winter landscape to lower cortisol levels

Blood Pressure

Moreover, physical activity affects the cardiovascular system causing blood pressure to fall.

Researchers discovered a hormone called atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) created by muscle tissue in the heart. It directly tempers the fight or flight response and helps to silence the noise in your brain.

ANP production increases with heart rate during workouts. And it can also enhance your body’s response to stress. Thus, the effects of ANP prove that exercise is not just improving the way you feel (Ratey and Hagerman 2008).

On the contrary, exercise is inducing stress on your body, but in a predictable and controllable way. If you don’t push it to an excessive level, training can boost self-confidence.

Likewise, exercise helps to develop the ability to manage stress without relying on a negative coping mechanism. Hence, it builds trust that you can deal with chronic stress and get out of it.

Running helped me to cope with increasing stress at work in a controllable way. Being aware of its benefits motivated me to run more than 1000 kilometers within a calendar year.

Given that, be aware that your body needs a proper amount of rest based on your physical activity. Because excessive training can induce severe physical stress leading to opposing results.

A woman is performing her regular exercise routine for the treatment of chronic stress

Nevertheless, exercise can reduce stress response over time. Studies show that physical activity grows back the hippocampus in rats and therefore reverses the effects of chronic stress (Ratey et al. 2008).

In conclusion, it’s a fact that you are and not just feel less stressed after a run, resistance training, or even a walk.

Nervous System

As we just revealed, treatment of stress through exercise helps us to achieve sustainable results.

On the contrary, Alcohol, junk food, or medicine simply can’t. A drink might calm your nerves short-term, but it negatively affects your body long-term.

For example, the diuretic effects of alcohol can cause excessive loss of water and lead to dehydration. Similarly, night-time awakenings commonly induced by alcohol can also enhance stress.

Moreover, stimulants like caffeine can lead an already stimulated nervous system from mild alertness to nervousness and, ultimately, anxiety.

Hence, cutting back on alcohol, caffeine, and supplements containing stimulants like ephedra is vital to reduce chronic stress. (Toubro and Astrup et al. 1993)

Common nutritional supplements for weight loss can deliver an excessive amount of stimulants.

Therefore, they are negatively affecting the stress response and nervous system. Furthermore, stimulants cause stress at the tissue and cellular level.

Likewise, their effects inhibit weight loss in the long run. Therefore it’s vital to avoid the following herbal stimulants fostering adrenaline and cortisol release:

  • Sida cordifolia (ephedra)
  • Ma huang (ephedra)
  • Guarana (caffeine)
  • Citrus aurantium (synephrine)
  • Coleus (forskolin)
  • Yohimbe (De Smet and Smeets 1994)
Supplements can foster symptoms of chronic stress

Coping With Chronic Stress

There are three factors fundamentally affecting how the body copes with chronic stress: The stress outlet, the predictability of the stress situation, and the control of the stressor.

As already stated above, exercise achieves the outlet of chronic stress. Predictability, on the other hand, is making the same situation less stressful. That especially helps in the case of recurring events.

For example, the first driving lesson can be immensely stressful if you haven’t ever been driving a car before.

Experiencing the same situation repeatedly as part of proper training decreases the stress level over time.

Lacking the third factor, control, can cause high cortisol levels. People feeling in control of a stressor are releasing less cortisol.

With this in mind, researchers observed rats, trained in pushing a lever to delay getting shocked.

And the rats still felt more in control after the lever’s functionality was disabled. Thus, they were less likely to experience stress-related diseases.

Similarly, humans react during a time of corporate layoffs.

Those in departments affected by job-cuts are experiencing less control leading to severe psychological stress. But people unaffected by job-cuts are by far less likely to feel stressed (Talbott 2007).

Women practicing yoga for chronic stress reduction

Chronic Stress Management

Being obsessive about controlling every single stressor might get you even more stressed. Hence, a reasonable approach is trying to control the things you easily can control instead of external factors.

Researchers in Zurich have observed the following insight in a randomized controlled trial:

“resource-oriented stress management training effectively reduces endocrine stress responses to stress in healthy adults.” – (Storch and Gaab et al. 2007)

These Swiss researchers pointed out the importance of daily stress management. Likewise, they concluded that chronic stress leads to the inability to mount fight or flight responses in the long run.

Scientists approach treatment for chronic stress simpler than you think. It starts with awareness and the ability to accept the harmful effects of chronic stress on your body and mind.

And the final step might also be more straightforward than expected – do something about it.

Researchers at the Alberta Cancer Board have shown that gentle activities like meditation, yoga, and relaxation exercises are quite impactful.

Their mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) approach decreased symptoms of high cortisol levels while increasing sleep and overall life quality of cancer patients (Carlson and Speca et al. 2004).

Stress management can start with a quick win today. For example, stress relief at the office can be as simple as listening to relaxing music to better focus on a task.

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Conclusion

We feel stressed out more than ever, because evolution did not design the stress response for the recurring stress of modern life.

Consequently, the effects of chronic stress are harming us physically and psychologically, ranging from tissue breakdown to anxiety.

But we can keep high cortisol levels in check and accomplish stress outlets through exercise. Additionally, regular movement improves brain function.

Moreover, feeling in control of stressors lowers cortisol levels.

Therefore, take action right away with the help of my simple Stress Management Techniques PDF List.

Acute Vs. Chronic Stress FAQ

What are the five symptoms of chronic stress?

Five common symptoms of chronic stress are headaches, fatigue, sleep deprivation, mood swings, and cravings.

What does chronic stress do to your body?

Chronic stress decreases muscle mass and bone density while increasing body fat, appetite, sex drive, anxiety, and depression.

What is chronic stress examples?

Common examples of chronic stressors are mortgage payments, traffic jams, credit card bills, or project deadlines.

How do you know if you have chronic stress?

You know that you are chronically stressed when everyday challenges expand to serious problems.

References

Abercrombie HC, Giese-Davis J, Sephton S, Epel ES, Turner-Cobb JM, Spiegel D. Flattened cortisol rhythms in metastatic breast cancer patients. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004 Sep;29(8):1082-92. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2003.11.003. PubMed PMID: 15219660.

Carlson LE, Speca M, Patel KD, Goodey E. Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress and levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004 May;29(4):448-74. PubMed PMID: 14749092.

De Smet PA, Smeets OS. Potential risks of health food products containing yohimbe extracts. BMJ. 1994 Oct 8;309(6959):958. doi: 10.1136/bmj.309.6959.958. PubMed PMID: 7950687; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2541171.

Ratey, John J, and Eric Hagerman. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.

Storch M, Gaab J, Küttel Y, Stüssi AC, Fend H. Psychoneuroendocrine effects of resource-activating stress management training. Health Psychol. 2007 Jul;26(4):456-63. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.26.4.456. PubMed PMID: 17605565.

Talbott, Shawn M. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health–and What You Can Do About It. 2nd ed. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 2007.

Toubro S, Astrup A, Breum L, Quaade F. The acute and chronic effects of ephedrine/caffeine mixtures on energy expenditure and glucose metabolism in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1993 Dec;17 Suppl 3:S73-7; discussion S82. PubMed PMID: 8124407.

Mag. Stephan Lederer, Bakk., MSc

Stephan is a writer and a true man of science holding multiple diplomas and master degrees among different areas of research. Closing the gap between the conventional perception of health and the latest scientific evidence is his greatest analytical passion – always following the data.

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