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Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Acute Stress Is Triggered

 By: Ellen Huston


Stress is with us always - there's just no getting away from it. But all stress is not the same. Some types of stress actually help us to cope.

Acute stress - also known as fight-or-flight response, is an anxiety disorder. It occurs when we experience either a real or perceived threat to us. The perceived threat can be physical in nature, such as a speeding car 100 feet away bearing down on us or a black bear 100 yards away from our camping tent. Or the threat can be emotional as a mother might feel as she's waiting for the hospital to call regarding the fate of her husband or child that is lying on a hospital operating table.

The hypothesis of acute stress response is not new. It's been around since at least the 1920's. When acute stress response occurs, the body experiences many changes. The blood vessels constrict which causes blood to drain away from the skin and leading to the expression "he was white as a ghost" as a way of describing somebody who has just experienced a frightening event. The drained blood, and oxygen, flows into the muscles, lungs, and large muscles - strengthening them all. The heart rate increases enabling blood to be pumped to the various body organs faster. And the pupils of the eye becomes dilated allowing for sharper vision.

In addition to the above symptoms, the adrenal glands secrete the "stress hormone" cortisol which floods through the body. Cortisol has an immediate and dramatic effect on the body. Reflexes are heightened, immunity is increased, sensitivity to pain is decreased, and the body is suddenly filled with energy and ready to run or fight.

Prime candidates for acute stress are soldiers returning from war. Many of the troops coming home from Iraq have experienced high levels of acute stress. Many people in the medical field, such as doctors and nurses, experience this as well.

Acute stress disorder is something a bit more serious. It is something that develops after the initial traumatic event that may have caused acute stress in the person. It's triggered by the person merely remembering the event. Only a licensed therapist or psychologist can diagnose acute stress disorder, but some symptoms are:

1) Difficulty concentrating - the person may have problems focusing or following a train of thought and may seem as if he is in a daze or fog.

2) Detachment and a decrease in emotional responsiveness - the person may seem emotionally aloof, as if they've detached themselves from their feelings in order to avoid further pain.

3) Ongoing Short term amnesia - the person may go into a room to get something but suddenly can't remember what it was he wanted. Or, he may start to ask you an important question, but can't remember what he wanted to ask.

To be classified as acute stress disorder, these symptoms must occur within one month after the initial traumatic event. This disorder is very closely related to post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD is basically a longer lasting form of acute stress disorder.

Generally stress is considered bad for us. And usually it is. But acute stress or short term stress is a centuries old survival mechanism that helps us to cope with wrenching events in our lives.

Ellen Huston is writer and researcher for . Please visit her site where she tackles issues such as post tramatic stress disorder and other stress related issues.

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