Different Types of Stress and Their Associated Cost

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

What are the different types of stress? And how much do these different types of stress cost us as a person and as a society?

Illustration of a Stress and Performance Curve.
A stress and performance curve shows the different levels of acute and chronic stress and their impact on our performance. (Image: Arka38 /Shutterstock)

Most of the people we know are stressed out. Many of them are busy with work, or school, or family, or other activities. Not only do they have too much to do, but they also have to deal with all kinds of frustrating and stressful events, including problems at work, deadlines at school, and conflicts at home.

Some people are stressed out by their financial situation or legal problems, while some are dealing with the problems of people they care about, such as aging parents, children who are struggling, and friends or family members battling alcohol or drugs, among others.

There are also people whose everyday lives are just inherently stressful, such as police officers and members of the armed forces. And, of course, everybody occasionally experiences traumatic life events, such as the death of a loved one, or losing one’s job, or having one’s primary relationship fall apart.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Cost of Stress

One research study found that 75 percent of Americans say they experience extreme stress at least one day a week, on average. Another study that had people keep a daily record of stressful events found that respondents experienced at least one stressful event on 40 percent of the days, during the length of the study, and multiple stressful events on 10 percent of the days. That’s a lot of stress.

As you have probably experienced personally, stress takes a major toll on both psychological and physical well-being. It’s hard for people to enjoy life when their stress levels are high. People who are under stress are often moody and hostile, and chronic stress leads some people to become depressed.

Chronic stress results in severe losses for businesses.
Acute and chronic stress cause American businesses up to $300 billion in losses every year. (Image: Jirapong Manustrong/Shutterstock)

Stress interferes with people’s ability to perform well at work and at school. They are often juggling so many things that they can’t do a good job on anything, and they are so preoccupied by whatever is causing their stress that they can’t focus on the things they need to do. As stress mounts, people feel unable to handle even everyday tasks, so they often begin to avoid challenging situations. Studies show that about half the time that people stay home from work or from school, is not because they are sick, but because they feel too stressed out to deal with work or class.

And, of course, stress takes a tremendous toll on people’s health: high blood pressure, infections, and illnesses; weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia, skin conditions, and asthma are just a few of the health problems that can be caused by stress.

The financial costs of stress are also very high. It’s been estimated that stress costs American businesses $300 billion a year in missed work, employee turnover, reduced productivity, and health-care costs.

Stress is such a serious and common problem that it’s not an understatement to suggest that we have a stress epidemic. But have you ever wondered where all this stress comes from, and why we don’t deal with stress better than we do? It’s almost as if human beings were designed with some sort of flaw that prevents them from coping with the stresses they experience in life.

Learn more about solving psychological mysteries.

What Is Acute Stress?

To understand the causes of stress, we need to make a distinction between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress occurs when people experience an immediate threat to their well-being. Something happens that needs an immediate response from our side. Acute stress is a normal part of life for all animals, including human beings.

Artistic representation of symptoms of stress.
People experience five symptoms of acute and chronic stress. (Image: Arka38/Shutterstock)

In fact, animals in the wild experience brief, acute stressors intermittently all day long. They’re sitting in a tree, or grazing in a field, or swimming in a river, when suddenly a possible threat arises—a threatening animal, a loud noise—and their body spring into action to deal with the threat. Their heart rate and blood pressure increase, and their muscles become tense to prepare them to take action.

The same with people: you nearly have an accident while driving your car, or you think someone is following you while walking down a dark street, or you get a piece of bad news, or you lose your wallet. When these kinds of events happen, the stress response kicks in as nature’s way of helping you respond to the event. But, then, once the event is over, your body returns to normal and acute stress goes away, with little or no lingering effects.

Learn more about how human nature evolve.

What Is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is another matter altogether. When people talk about being under stress, they’re usually talking about chronic stress; stress that’s almost always there. Even when the person is doing something else, it’s in the background ready to rise up at any time.

Most animals don’t appear to experience chronic stress. Have you ever seen a chronically stressed-out animal in the wild? We have no evidence that between those occasional episodes of acute stress that occur throughout an animal’s day, animals are chronically worried, uptight, and stressed out.

A deer may be startled by a loud noise and take off through the forest, but as soon as the threat is gone, the deer immediately calms down and starts grazing. It doesn’t appear to be tied in knots the way that many of us are. Throw a rock in the water and the fish scatter in a flurry of acute stress, but then they quickly return to normal.

The only animals that seem to show signs of chronic stress are some that live around human beings. Animals that are kept in cages or abused by people certainly show signs of chronic stress, but when left to their own devices, far away from people, animals don’t appear to experience chronic stress the way that people do.

Both acute stress and chronic stress have an impact on us humans, but the negative impact of chronic stress is far greater. Every individual needs to be aware of it and needs to adopt measures to counter stress. American businesses need to equally cognizant of the impact stress has on their employees. Even if they think purely from a profit perspective, it makes sense to lower stress to reduce losses. Stress is a major problem that we all must address in order to make the best use of our bodies and time.

Common Questions About Stress

Q: What are some emotional signs of stress?

Some emotional signs of stress include depression or anxiety; anger, irritability or restlessness; feeling unmotivated or unfocused; trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; racing thoughts or constant worry; and problems with memory or concentration.

Q: What are the three different types of stress?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the three different types of stress are acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.

Q: Can stress kill you?

Stress or chronic stress does a lot of harm to our bodies. Over a period of time, it can contribute to long-term problems of heart and blood vessels.

Q: How do you relieve stress?

To relieve chronic stress, we should educate ourselves regarding the complications, set limits to our goals, get better sleep, try belly breathing, and get professional help.

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