Short-Term (Acute) Stress

Have you ever heard someone say, “I never felt so alive!” in response to a dangerous or intense situation? This is because short-term (acute) stress heightens awareness, fine tunes our senses, enables clearer thinking, and promotes faster decision-making. One might even feel a sense of euphoria. Think of extreme sports and the “high”  participants experience.   Adrenaline quickly courses through the body preparing for a fight or flight response. When the situation resolves itself, the adrenaline will rapidly diminish.  No harm done.

Some examples of what may cause acute stress in our day-to-day lives would be:

  • Root Canal
  • Medical Procedure
  • Performance Evaluation
  • Test
  • Major Purchase
  • Argument

Symptoms of Acute Stress may include one or any combination of those listed below:

  • Abdominal Pain
  • Sweating          
  • Dizziness                    
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Headache                   
  • Palpitations
  • Indigestion 
  • Numbness                  
  • Detachment        
  • Temporary Paralysis   
  • Temporary Blindness  

Let me share with you a personal experience to demonstrate the body’s response to acute stress. My husband and I needed to make a trip from Colorado to Illinois for a funeral in 1977.  Due to my husband’s disability, I did all the driving. We made the trip there without problems. However on the way back to Colorado we encountered blizzard conditions near Omaha, NE. The exit signs were not visible through the blowing snow and I couldn’t see the lane markings. It was evening rush hour and traffic was heavy. I felt trapped between the cars, unable to see clearly, feeling lost, and wanting nothing more than to find a motel.

My hands tightened on the steering wheel in a death grip. I was so fearful of being in an accident, my heart started pounding, my breathing became fast and shallow, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I don’t think I even blinked as I searched desperately for an exit while trying to stay within my ‘invisible’ lane. Finally, by the grace of God, I managed to pull off the highway and found a motel.

As I exited the vehicle, I was startled to find I couldn’t feel the ground beneath my feet. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything! I touched my face and lips ̶ totally numb! I had never experienced anything like that before. I wasn’t numb from the cold; I was numb from the extreme stress of the moment. My blood pressure must  have been sky high as well. The stress hormones in that acute state had caused my symptoms. 

After a good night’s sleep, much to my relief, the numbness disappeared. The storm had ended and we made it slowly, but safely, back home. As frightening as the symptoms were, that rush of adrenaline prepared me for the immediate dangers of driving in a blizzard.  Did I feel euphoria? No, but let me tell you it was the best night’s sleep I ever had, and I felt great in the morning.

As a family caregiver, what gets your adrenaline pumping? I’m sure you can think of many things: a medical emergency, dealing with uncooperative behavior, or a fall in the tub, to name a few. We normally recover from this type of stress fairly quickly with no long-term damage to our mental or physical health. The rise and fall of our cortisol level would happen more slowly. Unfortunately, the continuous stress of being a family caregiver doesn’t give our stress hormones a chance to return to normal levels, and this is where we run into trouble.

I’ll cover the effects of long-term (chronic) stress in a future post.  As you learn to understand the differences, you’ll be better able to recognize the stress in your life and find ways to handle it.

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