Have you been trying to avoid stress completely? Here’s what you need to know: Not only is this a futile exercise, but it’s also dangerous! You actually need some degree of stress in your life.
Chronic Stress vs. Acute Stress
Generally speaking, one could classify two types of stress: acute and chronic. As humans, we are designed to thrive with acute stress. Acute stress is a singular event, a temporary state of strain or tension that has a beginning and an end. When you feel ongoing tension and you feel you have no control over it, then it becomes chronic stress.
Sometimes, I think that the week is like a state of acute stress. We have responsibilities and work that needs to get done during the week. Then on Saturdays and Sundays we can relax. Being Jewish, Saturdays certainly are our day of rest and we stop doing any creative work. This is the day for me to completely rehabilitate myself. I don't turn the computer on and I don't drive. I just quietly spend time with family and community, and I get recharged on that day for the following week.
There are cycles of action and rest in all of life. There is the weekly cycle where you need to rest one or two days a week. There is the daily cycle of sleep and awake. But there is also one daily cycle that most don’t pay attention to: restful alertness and active alertness.
One needs to spend some time each day during waking hours to rest and recharge. Usually 20 minutes is enough, but 30 to 40 minutes is better. (See article on the parasympathetic vs sympathetic nervous system for more information.)
Let's understand the difference between acute and chronic stress in our own lives by looking at them on a physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social level.
Stress on a Physical Level
When we’re talking about physical stress, we can look at it from two perspectives. These are nutritional status and physical activity.
Think of the difference between high-intensity interval training and long-lasting aerobic exercise. During high intensity-interval trainings, you’re increasing the activity for a short period of time. This is where you get to a point where you’re breathing heavier for a short period of time and you slow down to a walk four to five times during training sessions. This is usually done a couple of times a week.
High-intensity interval trainings have been proven by many studies to be more beneficial in terms of increasing the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood than jogging for 30 to 40 minutes straight. Google Tabata Training to learn more about this.
People who do endurance aerobic exercises have been found to have some damage to the heart muscle. Remember the 80s where people are running on the treadmill for 45 minutes to an hour a day? That’s not a healthy way to exercise. A couple of times a week of high-intensity interval training has been proven to outperform that type of exercise in terms of the measure of overall physical conditioning.
The same thing goes with lifting weights or doing resistance training. We definitely need to be always using our muscles, but when someone actually wants to gain muscle, you really need to lift the heavier weights to create an acute stress on your body, on the muscles that then can cause repair.
So you see, this principle of willingly inflicting an acute stress has been proven by studies measuring physical conditioning to be beneficial. But the principle of chronic stress like marathon runners has been shown to be unhealthy. Marathon runners don’t have any longevity advantage compared to the regular population.
We also need to do resistance training, but this should be at a low-level that wouldn’t be counted as stress. It needs to be something that you can continually challenge yourself on, which is using your muscles on a regular basis. This makes elastic bands a great workout solution that you can include in your fitness plan. It’s so easy to use that you can do it while you're watching TV. It just primes your body so it's not actually stressful.
There's a lot of interest now in fasting, which puts your body under acute stress. When you fast, there are things that are activated in your body to heighten your awareness. It activates chemicals in your body that are going to help you get through the fast, which also carry longevity benefits.
But making fasting a long-term strategy for weight loss isn't a good idea. You’re turning that acute stress into chronic stress. If you go on a super-low calorie diet to lose weight continue to do so for months to years, your health will decline.
I mentioned this because 1,200-calorie-a-day diets are becoming a trend. While they will cause you to lose weight, you’re most likely not going to thrive on that. Your immune system will suffer and your anxiety and cravings will increase. Emotional liability has been found when people lower the calorie counts to very low levels per day.
Remember that you don't need to eat less than you actually need. If you fast, you still need to recover those calories that you lose through short periods fasting. When we do fasting, the old cells in our body get recycled in a process called autophagy.
In one of the ironies of life, eating itself is a oxidative stress on the body. Remember we discussed cycles above. Well, there is the cycle of eating and fasting. Each part of each cycle is important. When you're eating every few hours like some people suggest and don't have periods of not eating, that shuts down the breakdown of all these old cells.
You read that right : we get rid of old cells and also detoxify our bodies when we don’t eat. There's a reason why we evolved in a situation where there are periods of fasting and periods of feasting, and in some ways we can recapture that by instituting periods of fasting.
How do you ensure you’re not shifting over into chronic stress when you’re fasting? The answer is by making sure you’re getting enough hydration and a good amount of calories after the fasting period. The problem is a lot of people who fast tend to overeat.
There’s a lot of balance one needs to learn that goes on with fasting. You shouldn’t just start fasting without talking or learning about how to do it, especially if you are on meds for blood pressure or diabetes. Most certainly however, I would avoid eating every few hours.
Stress on an Emotional Level
We all know the saying, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." In a sense, chronic and acute stress on an emotional level are somewhat related to this.
When we tackle an emotional stress and resolve it and move on, then we become stronger. It becomes chronic emotional stress when you continue to react to it. Like chronic physical stress, this long-term emotional stress can weaken your immune system. It can cause a whole host of physical symptoms.
Learn how to understand your responses to stress. It's not a health or life-promoting event, so we need to be conscious of the emotional stresses that we have. We need to know whether we've allowed them to become chronic stresses, which can impact our overall health. If you have unresolved emotional traumas or pains, you turn an acute stressor into a chronic one with unfortunate effects on your body.
Stress on an Intellectual Level
On an intellectual level, an acute stress that would benefit you is when you are trying to challenge yourself intellectually by learning something new.
While we should be challenging ourselves intellectually to keep learning and growing, we don’t want to turn these intellectual challenges into chronic struggles. We need to have periods of calm where we let our minds relax and release tension.
There is a cycle system of intellectual rest called the "pomodoro technique" that suggests working for 40 minutes straight with 5, 10, 15 minutes of rest each hour of hard intellectual work. This idea of cycles shows up yet again.
Stress on a Spiritual Level
In the Bible, you may read about running and returning angels, just like the angels on Jacob’s ladder going up and down. In my tradition, that notion of running and retreating is associated with the concept that when we make spiritual leaps towards God and our relationship with God, we need to return back to ourselves.
We are not meant to stay in deep contemplation forever. While we can always be conscious of that relationship with the divine, we are meant to come back to into the real world and implement spiritual values on a practical level.
You may have known some people who are spiritually high, but their everyday lives don’t really reflect what they believe in. When people are perpetually in these flights of mysticism, contemplation, and meditation, they fail to stay grounded. Remember that we also need to come back to earth and be engaged in the world around us. We need to translate our faith into action. We need to use the material world around us to implement, to refine and improve.
Johnny Cash said it well in a song called “No Earthly Good” The chorus is “So heavenly minded, you're no earthly good.”
On the other end of the spectrum, a person can also be always be too grounded and engaged in the material world. That person is not making that leap and is always down here in the physical world.
As you can see, spiritual and material obsessions are both chronic stresses. There should be that balance where you consistently practice spirituality and then return back to the physical world to implement and put your faith into action.
Stress on a Social Level
Most people have social phobias of some sort. If we just stay within our small families or become hermits, then that becomes a form of chronic stress. Humans are meant to be social. At the same time, if you're overly social and not taking the time to retreat, then that can also become a chronic stress.
We have different degrees of being an introvert and an extrovert, and we need to make those leaps, whether it’s speaking to people more or taking the time to recharge alone after long periods of social interaction. Actively find your balance!
Flight of Going Back and Forth
When trying to understand stress on physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social levels, you will notice that there’s a flight of going back and forth. You always need to be moving from a state of action to rest. We need to be continuously challenging ourselves in some way and determining for ourselves the difference between acute and chronic stress. Everything is about finding a balance.
Another key point to remember here is we actually have to let ourselves experience acute stresses. That could mean doing something that’s not really comfortable for you now but will be beneficial for you in the long run. It may mean challenging yourself to speak when you’re not really sociable or seeking ways to improve your skills, and then retreating back to take a break when you feel you’ve already stretched your comfort zone enough to benefit from the experience. We need to keep running and returning to maintain a healthy life in general.
Let’s face it, life will make you experience stress, so you might as well pick your own acute stresses and become stronger. This will allow you to endure the unexpected stresses of life with more strength and more equanimity.
I'm sure all of us can relate to the topic of chronic and acute stress in some way. You might find difficulty in finding a balance in one of the five levels mentioned above. Look at each level and see where you are intelligently implementing small stresses that you can retreat from. You become strong from this process, which is encoded into our bodies. It's encoded into everything that we are.
You become stronger by actively seeking out small stressors that can make you stronger.
In science it's called hormesis. That's the actual technical term for this concept that these small doses of toxins and stressors can be beneficial, and when you remove them, you actually can get weaker.
What acute stresses are part of your life that benefit you or what chronic stresses would you like to get rid of? Let me know in the comments section or join the discussion in our Weight Loss Awakening Friendship Group.