Understanding the Four Types of Stress

May 2022

Everyone can feel overwhelmed by physical, emotional, or mental demands now and again. Stress is how your brain and body respond to those demands. Getting a handle on your stress starts with understanding the different types of stress — and what can trigger each of them.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Stress affects both your body and your mind. Common reactions to stress include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lethargy and exercising less often

The Four Types of Stress

Stress is a normal reaction to the demands of daily life. A modest amount of stress can help you step up and take action, but too much of it can negatively impact your health. Knowing what kind of stress you’re experiencing can help you manage it. The four types of stress are:

Acute stress

Acute stress is your body’s fight or flight reaction to an immediate or short-term stressor, such as an argument or accident.

These short-term stressors can feel awful in the moment. But the effects on your body pass quickly. After the threat is over, it takes your metabolism about 90 minutes to return to normal.

To manage acute stress while it’s happening or right after, try breathing exercises or take a brisk walk, recommends the American Psychological Association.

Chronic stress

Routine situations can take a toll on your well-being. The demands of daily life, such as going to work or school, paying the bills, or raising kids, can add up.

Chronic stress is repeated stress that occurs over a long period of time. Some of it you can avoid or control, such as toxic relationships. Some of it is out of your control or hard to overcome, such as poverty or discrimination.

We often ignore chronic stress. And that’s a bad thing. Over time, chronic stress affects your physical and mental health. Your body never gets the signal to shut off its flight or fight response.

Chronic stress can lead to or worsen chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression and anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It can even weaken your immune system.

You can reduce some of your chronic stress by eliminating things you can control, such as ending a toxic friendship or changing your job.

To manage chronic stress you can’t control or avoid, you need to make your mental health a priority. Practicing meditation and mindfulness — or being in the moment — can help you manage chronic stress, as well as reduce anxiety and depression.


Distress is stress in reaction to specific situations with negative connotations. This is the type of stress you experience after situations such as getting a divorce, being injured in an accident, losing a job, or going through financial difficulties. A chronic illness, such as cancer, can also cause distress and impact your mental health.

Traumatic stress also falls under distress. It’s stress in reaction to a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event that can potentially seriously injure or kill you. Traumatic events include assaults, major accidents, and natural and man-made disasters.

The effects of traumatic stress often pass shortly after the traumatic event is over. But for some people, traumatic stress can cause what’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. If you’re dealing with PTSD, it’s important to seek professional mental health help. Treatment can include medication and psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy.


Not all stress is bad stress. Sometimes, stress is a temporary reaction to a positive event, such as getting married, being promoted, or having a baby. Both chronic stress and distress can interfere with your ability to live your life well. Eustress, by comparison, is productive stress. It spurs you to act in a good and healthy way.

When your stress interferes with your life, it’s time to talk to your doctor. They can recommend interventions and treatment options that help. Or they can refer you to a mental health professional for additional treatment.

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