By Emma Stessman
Chronic stress is like the monster hiding under your bed (if the bed is your healthy lifestyle) that causes inflammation, messes with your sleep habits, and leads to weight gain when you let it run wild.
But short-term stress that presents itself as jitters before a big meeting or a first date is no big deal, and might actually be beneficial, explains Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., a California-based clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain.
“Stress can be an opportunity for personal growth,” Dr. Greenberg says. “If you ask yourself: What’s the growth opportunity in this situation? What’s the learning opportunity? That can, in a certain way, transform the stress. Because even if you’re going through something really difficult, you can still be developing skills and attributes that are going to help you in the future.”
One key to tapping into those benefits (yes, benefits!) of stress is being able to distinguish between acute (short-term) stress and chronic (long-term, pervasive) stress—and knowing how to cope when it takes a turn towards the latter.
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Stress
Here’s a great example of how sweating the small stuff can be a good thing: “Exercise is a great example of when acute stress can be beneficial for the body,” says functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, MD. “It helps boost your energy and keeps your body and mind more resilient and able to respond well in short, stressful situations.”
Just like a daily workout, whether it’s 10 minutes or two hours, acute stressors always have a clear end point. “Acute stress is when you have a situation that’s a specific challenge or difficulty, but then it ends—there’s an answer, there’s a solution,” Dr. Greenberg says. Say you’re nervous about a serious conversation you need to have with your BFF. If at the end of it you’re grabbing matcha lattes together, that stress is not going to affect your health.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, results from a situation that continues on for a long period of time and has no clear solution or way out. So, say that conversation goes south and turns into a full-fledged difference of opinion that you’re stewing over for weeks. Now rehashing the mean things she said and wondering if you’ll be able to repair the friendship is keeping you up at night.
In addition to a short-term stressor turning a larger issue, piling too much acute stress on top of itself can also lead to the chronic kind. For example, if you’re repeatedly cramming your days with stressful presentations, impossible deadlines, family obligations, and social media (yes, Instagram can be a major stressor), “this can become a problem, as your body never has a chance to recover and restore,” Dr. Lipman says.
The “Perfect” Amount of Stress
So how exactly do you walk the line of having a “healthy level” of stress without tumbling to the other side, where it feels completely out of control?
Ideally, your stress should feel like a call-to-action. “The perfect amount of stress is when you feel activated, motivated, and revved up to deal with the situation––but it’s a manageable situation and as a result of your efforts, something changes,” Dr. Greenberg says.
If feel yourself starting to veer towards unmanageable stress levels, think about the thing that’s stressing you out and try to distinguish which aspects of it are in your control and which ones aren’t. “Then, put your efforts and energy into what you can control and try to stop putting so much energy into ruminating on the outcomes that are out of your control,” Dr. Greenberg says. “Judge yourself by your efforts, and not by the uncontrollable things.”