When Life Changes: Acute Stress

Acute stress is the most obvious kind of stress, and it's pretty easy to spot if you associate it with one thing:

ACUTE STRESS = CHANGE

Yep, that's all it is. Change. Stuff you're not used to. And that can include anything, from a change in your diet to a change in your exercise habits to a change in your job to a change in the people involved in your life, whether you've lost them or gained them.

In other words, acute stress is something that disturbs your body's equilibrium. You get used to things being a certain way, physically, mentally, emotionally, even chemically. Your body clock is set to sleep at certain times, your energy rises and falls at certain times, and your blood sugar changes in response to the meals you eat at certain times each day.

As you go along your merry way in life, entrenched in your routines and habits and “normal” way of living, your body and your mind know pretty much what to expect.

But when something happens to change our existence, whether that something is a physical change (like a cold virus or a sprained ankle), a chemical change (like the side effects of a medication or the hormonal fluctuations following childbirth), or an emotional change (like a marriage, a child leaving the nest, or the death of a loved one), our equilibrium is altered. Our life changes. Our bodies and minds are thrown out of the routine they've come to expect. We've experienced change, and with that comes stress.

All of the following are stressful to your mind and body: serious illness (either yours or that of a loved one), divorce, bankruptcy, too much overtime at work, a promotion, the loss of a job, marriage, college graduation, and a winning lottery ticket.

Acute stress is hard on our bodies and our minds because people tend to be creatures of habit. Even the most spontaneous and schedule resistant among us have our habits, and habits don't just mean enjoying that morning cup of coffee or sleeping on that favorite side of the bed. Habits include minute, complex, intricate interworkings of physical, chemical, and emotional factors on our bodies.

Say you get up and go to work five days each week, rising at 6:00 A.M., downing a bagel and a cup of coffee, then hopping on the subway. Once a year, you go on vacation, and, for two weeks, you sleep until 11:00 A.M., then wake up and eat a staggering brunch. That's stressful, too, because you've changed your habits.

You probably enjoy it, and in some ways, a vacation can mediate the chronic stress of sleep deprivation. But if you are suddenly sleeping different hours and eating different things than usual, your body clock will have to readjust, your blood chemistry will have to readjust, and just when you've readjusted, you'll probably have to go back to waking up at 6:00 A.M. and foregoing the daily bacon and cheese omelets for that good old bagel, again.

Pushing yourself to work too hard, staying up too late, eating too much (or too little), or worrying constantly is not only stressful on your mind but also stressful on your body. Many medical professionals believe that stress can contribute to heart disease, cancer, and an increased chance of accidents.

That's not to say you shouldn't go on vacation. You certainly shouldn't avoid all change. Without change, life wouldn't be much fun. Humans desire and need a certain degree of change. Change makes life exciting and memorable. Change can be fun … up to a point.

Here's the tricky part: How much change you can stand before the changes start to have a negative effect on you is a completely individual issue. A certain amount of stress is good, but too much will start to become unhealthy, unsettling, and unbalancing. No single formula will calculate what “too much stress” is for everyone because the level of acute stress you can stand is likely to be completely different than the level of stress your friends and relatives can stand (although a low level of stress tolerance does appear to be inheritable).

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