Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress: The Impact of Chronic Stress on Our Health

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.


Acute stress a physiological response to stress in our environment. Though each stressful situation is different, they all have some things in common.

Acute stress a physiological response to stress in our environment.  Though each stressful situation is different, they all have some things in common.  We almost always feel one more of the following:

  • A threat to our well being or those of our friends, family, or community
  • A threat to our ego or sense of self
  • A feeling of losing control 
  • Feeling beyond our comfort zone (often in a new situation)
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

What Happens in Our Body When We Experience Acute Stress?

  • The adrenal glands produce cortisol, DHEA, and adrenaline
  • Our heart rate increases
  • Our blood pressure increases
  • Our blood sugar increases
  • We sweat
  • Our breathing gets shallower and faster

How Do We Feel When Experiencing Acute Stress?

  • We become hyper-focused on the source of the stress, getting “tunnel vision”
  • We gain strength and power due to the increased blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Our body and mind are poised to “save our life”
  • Simply put, we are laser-focused to go into battle with whatever is confronting us.
  • This rush of hormones can be addictive.  “Adrenaline junkies” love to participate in dangerous sports. But many of us are addicted to the rush of these hormones on a lower, daily level as we feel more “alive” during these brief experiences.

Is Episodic, Acute Stress “Bad” For Our Health?

Absolutely not.  Acute stress is normal and potentially life-saving.  Stress hormones cause us to meet our perceived needs, we rise to the occasion and respond appropriately to the stressor.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is the continued, constant release of stress hormones due to a stream of actual or perceived threats. This changes our hormones and the nervous system.

Many researchers have shown that chronic stress Increases the frequency and severity of all major illnesses.  Experts estimate that chronic stress contributes to over 90% of all primary care doctor visits. 

What Does Chronic Stress Feel Like?

  • Anxiousness
  • Insomnia
  • Palpitations
  • Racing mind, racing thoughts
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability

What Are The Mental, Emotional and Physical Manifestations of Chronic Stress?

  • Mental Manifestations of Chronic Stress
    • Anxiousness
    • Worry
    • Nervousness
    • Depression 
  • Emotional Manifestations of Chronic Stress
    • Irritability
    • Reactivity
    • Outbursts
    • Apathy
  • Physical Manifestations of Chronic Stress
    • Insomnia
    • Fatigue
    • Poor stamina
    • Increased risk of high blood sugar, diabetes, etc
    • High or low blood pressure
    • Loss of concentration
    • Loss of memory

How Does Chronic Stress Impact Our Health?

All chronic illnesses increase in the face of chronic stress including:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Auto-immune illnesses

Back to The Science of Anxiety and Stress

How Does Stress Affect our Nervous System?

Acute stress flips us into a “sympathetic dominant state”—also known as fight or flight. Our bodies react as if being chased by a tiger! The heart-racing feeling we get in that situation is due to the acute release of cortisol and adrenaline. Those hormones divert energy from our digestion, repair, and healing aspects of our body. They divert all of our energy to pumping blood to muscles, coordination, etc. so that we can save our lives and escape.  

Why and How is Fight or Flight or “Sympathetic Dominance” Bad for Our Health?

The adrenaline response is designed for infrequent activation in extreme situations. It should turn on and off quickly so our “battery” or reserve of adrenaline and other stress hormones remains charged and our nervous system maintains balance.  A healthy stress response is rapid and powerful.  

Have you ever seen a wild animal attacked and then watch it survive, shake out the stress, and go back to its normal life within minutes to hours?  

With a short-lived stress response, our nervous system would go back to a calm, resting state, known as the parasympathetic state after the initial stressor is gone. The adrenaline would be metabolized (detoxified) and released. Then we could go back to eating, sleeping, pooping, etc.

What Happens When Everyday is Do or Die?

What happens when we watch videos showing the death of our planet (climate change), wildfires, hurricanes, shootings, and crimes, on TV or at the movies?  What happens when we are “attacked” by online trolls and their snide remarks? Do we respond with grace and ease or do we feel as if our very existence is threatened? Do we react as if we were the ones in the fire, or suffering from the hurricane?  Is there a difference?  Not at all.

Is There a Difference Between Real or Imagined Stressors?

Our nervous system responds equally to stressors that are real or imagined. Our body cannot distinguish between the imaginary “tiger” in our imagination vs. a real tiger coming at us.  

What if I think my boss is going to fire me if I do not work late every day, or if I think a loved one is going to walk out on our relationship? Science has proven beyond doubt that there is no difference in our bodies between a real tiger chasing us or an imagined one.

Many people are stuck in chronic, maladaptive stress response as if our fear and anxiety switch is always on. I have been there myself.

On the flip side, is there a difference between real or imagined habits?  

Absolutely not!  We can use the power of our conscious mind to build a positive mental state and form good habits. We can learn to see and feel ourselves responding more effectively to adversity and it works.

How are Stress and Anxiety Related?

What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Stress is:  

  • Any change in our environment that makes us release stress hormones. It is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”  
  • Our response to an external event, whether real or imagined.  

Anxiety is:

  • A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
  • A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

How are Stress and Anxiety Connected?

Anxiety is the internal feeling of nervousness, uneasiness. It is the apprehension that occurs as a consequence of long-standing mental or emotional strain from external stressors

Anxiety is the internal symptom of a chronic and maladaptive response to external stress.

How Can We Learn to Heal our Anxiety?

It is simple yet complex. We must learn to heal our chronic, maladaptive response to stress.  Research shows that as we learn to heal our chronic stress, the symptoms of anxiousness, worry, and nervousness often improve.


How Do We Heal Our Chronic, Maladaptive Stress Response?

Humans are the only known organism in the universe that can alter our response to stress. We can consciously decide to alter our response. That gives us great freedom and opportunity to grow, heal, transform, and create resiliency!

What Factors Keep Us Stuck in a Chronic Stress Response?

  • Traumas
  • PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  • Epigenetics—Learned mal-adaptive behaviors from our families and ancestors
  • Lack of support
  • Poor diet and nutrition

Why This is Critical: What Happens If We Do Not Address Chronic Mal-Adaptive Stress That Causes Anxiety

  1. Our cellular repair system slows down. Damage increases, toxins stay in the system, and we age faster.  
  2. Immune cells decline in number and function, making us more likely to get colds, flu, and other types of infections.  
  3. Cancer cells, which are normal and produced every day within each of us, are not properly removed due to the weakening of our Immune system. The increasing cell numbers raise the risk that we will “have cancer.” 
  4. DNA damage accumulates and is not repaired. The ends of our DNA, called telomeres accumulate damage, and again we “age faster”.  
  5. Toxins build up within our cells and are not flushed out properly. They start piling up into our tissues and our organs causing a decline in function. If this decline continues, it can lead to end-stage disease.  
  6. Our organs including our kidneys, liver, and skin (yes skin is our biggest organ), age faster.  As the organs of detoxification decline, the disease process speeds up as more toxins accumulate even faster.  
  7. Our brain physically deteriorates and shrinks in size. This has been proven in brain scans.  
  8. The hormones that make us feel and look healthy and youthful including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and growth hormone decline. We then feel and look older.
  9. At first, our adrenal glands enlarge with stress-producing more cortisol, adrenaline, and DHEA. Then, the adrenals often slowly shrivel up with time causing what some refer to as adrenal fatigue.  
  10. Anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors Increase. 
Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

How Can We Learn to Handle Chronic Stress and What is the Best Medicine for Stress?

To achieve lasting, effective change, we must work on all 3 Levels below. If we skip the physical, as some spiritual-minded people tend to do, then improvements will be temporary. 

If we only focus on our diet and physical well being, our subconscious drives will sabotage us repeatedly. 

The key to mastering the “human condition” is to maximize all parts of ourselves!  

Physical body: We must make our physical body as strong and resilient as possible.

    1. Improve our diets and nutritional status
    2. Limit toxins and chemical exposures as much as possible
    3. Regular detox including saunas, hot yoga, etc
    4. Grounding practices
    5. Breathwork

Conscious mind: Our conscious mind learns from reading and educating ourselves.  Reading this blog is (hopefully) changing your conscious mind.  

Subconscious mind: We must build habits via repetition. This “reprograms” our subconscious to embody the programs that are in alignment with our conscious goals.

Have you ever noticed that just reading about a subject does not help change your behavior?  Why is that?  It is because our subconscious is programmed differently and is “acting out” that programming often whether we like it or not!

More about this in our next article!

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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