3 Different Types of Stress & How to Tell the Difference

Published on: 26 Sep 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
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Stress is the body’s natural response to challenges, pressure, and threats. While it is a normal part of life, stress can take a toll on both your emotional and physical health. Not all stress is the same, though, and different kinds of stress can impact you in different ways.

There are three main types of stress you should know about: 

  1. Acute stress
  2. Episodic stress
  3. Chronic stress

“These stressors might come from specific sources such as loss, finances, trauma, profession/work, or interpersonal relationships. With acute stress, it might be that an issue is current and short-term. With episodic, it might be an issue that can come up at times and be a repeated source of stress. With chronic stress, it is a long-term issue that’s not easily resolved and is probably out of control of the person suffering because of it.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Read on to learn more about the different types of stress, so you can better understand how they might be affecting your well-being.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is a form of short-term stress that results from a new or unexpected stressful situation. It’s possible to experience acute stress in response to minor events — like being stuck in traffic — or when reacting to major occurrences — like getting into a car accident. 

Acute stress is the most common form of stress, and everyone experiences it from time to time.

Since the events that cause it generally only last for a brief period of time, many people find that with the right tools and coping strategies, it’s easier to manage acute stress than the other stress types. Acute stress is an immediate response to a perceived challenge or threat, and once that threat has passed, the symptoms of your stress should start to subside.

Signs of acute stress

When you’re dealing with acute stress, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Sweating 
  • Nausea
  • Feeling tense
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling detached from what’s happening around you

“Signs that you may be experiencing an especially high level of stress may include: frequent headaches, muscle tension, feelings of panic, dread, overwhelmingness, and digestive issues, to name a few.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Impact of acute stress

Most of the time, acute stress doesn’t have a significant or long-term impact on your overall well-being. Since it’s brief, acute stress is usually easy to recover from. In some cases, however, a person who’s experienced acute stress might develop a condition known as acute stress disorder (ASD). 

ASD is a stress reaction that occurs in the weeks following a traumatic event. Someone with ASD may have flashbacks to the source of trauma or feel as though they’re reliving what happened. If symptoms last for more than 4 weeks, it might lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even when acute stress doesn’t turn into acute stress disorder or PTSD, it’s possible for brief periods of stress to interfere with memory. Studies show that the brain is less likely to retain information about events occurring immediately after a stressful situation. When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones called catecholamines, which can interfere with executive functions like episodic memory. 

Episodic Stress

It’s normal to experience occasional acute stress, but some people are stressed on a regular basis. This is known as episodic stress. People who work in high-stress professions, such as healthcare workers and first responders like police officers or firefighters, are especially likely to struggle with this form of stress.

Episodic stress can also be an issue for people with anxiety disorders. Anxiety can cause some to constantly worry about everyday situations, which can increase their stress level and symptoms. Episodic stress can also be an issue if you tend to take on more responsibilities than you can handle. 

Signs of episodic stress

In addition to the symptoms associated with acute stress, if you’re dealing with episodic types of stress, you may also experience:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Heartburn
  • Panic attacks 
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Jaw pain
  • Neck and back pain
  • Difficulty controlling anger

Impact of episodic stress

Many people who live with episodic stress really aren’t aware of just how stressed they are. Since this type of stress is naturally repetitive, it’s not uncommon to begin seeing stressful events as normal, even when the body still has a physical stress response. This can make stress managing difficult.

For some, episodic stress results in a condition called over general autobiographical memory (OGM), which can prevent someone from recalling specific events. However, they retain general memories and remember repeated events. OGM can increase the risk of depression and interfere with personal relationships.

These frequent bouts of stress can be damaging to your health. Among other things, it can lead to hypertension, a condition that occurs when your blood pressure is consistently elevated above normal levels. Episodic stress can also cause you to grind your teeth and interfere with a healthy sleep habit.

Chronic Stress

Constantly experiencing high levels of stress over an extended window of time can cause someone to experience chronic stress, also known as toxic stress. This ongoing, persistent form of negative stress never seems to let up and is exhausting. It can be caused by someone’s environment, medical issues, or systemic factors. 

People might struggle with chronic stress if they live in an abusive household or a dangerous area. Chronic stress is often an issue for people with disabilities or serious health issues, and it can also affect caregivers. Housing instability and a lack of financial security are other common factors. 

Chronic stress can leave you feeling hopeless. When stress triggers never seem to let up, it can be hard to imagine that the situation will ever improve. Constant stress can be overwhelming and interfere with the ability to complete day-to-day tasks. 

Signs of chronic stress

Chronic stress can be highly damaging to your physical and mental health. If you’re struggling with chronic stress, you may experience:

  • Significant weight gain or weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Fertility issues
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem

Impact of chronic stress

When we feel stressed, our bodies naturally release stress hormones that make us more alert. While this can be beneficial in the short-term, it can be highly damaging for anyone who struggles with chronic stress. Health issues are associated with all types of stress, but studies show that people who experience chronic stress are more likely to develop serious health conditions, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, or a stroke. 

Over time, chronic stress can change the size and structure of the brain. Not only can this lead to cognitive and behavioral dysfunction, but it can also increase the risk of mental health conditions in the future. Even if chronic stressors are resolved, some people continue to experience stress symptoms. 

Chronic stress can also introduce new sources of stress into a person’s life. Long-term stress can weaken your immune system, making you more likely to catch colds, viruses, or other illnesses. People with this negative stress also often have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with others. 

Sources of Stress

Not only are there many different types of stress, but stress can come from a number of sources. Some of the factors that are most likely to contribute to various types of stress include:

  • Financial issues
  • Death
  • Job loss
  • Diagnosis of a serious illness of you or a loved one
  • Trauma
  • Professional problems
  • Personal relationships
  • Health issues
  • Emotional difficulties

Managing Your Stress 

Stress management techniques are key to coping with all types of stress. While it’s not always possible to keep stressful events from occurring, it is possible to find better ways to deal with stress. Over time, you can learn and implement coping techniques for any of the stress types. This will help you manage and navigate the stressful times in life that everyone goes through from time to time in life.  

“Getting a handle on your stress levels is an incredibly important goal. Decreased stress levels correlate with overall improved physical and mental well-being.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

With the help of a therapist, you can improve your resilience and find ways to cope with different kinds of stress. You’ll have the opportunity to process traumatic events and can learn to stay calm, even in tense situations. Although stress has the potential to be highly damaging, stress therapy can keep it from taking over your life. 

If you find it challenging to manage stress and it’s starting to impact your relationships and ability to function, it’s time to get help. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can help you get control over how you handle stress, whatever type you’re dealing with. Learn more about how Talkspace’s skilled, experienced therapists can help you take back your life today. 


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6. Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3). doi:10.4155/fso.15.21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137920/. Accessed July 28, 2022. 

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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