Stress isn’t just a word, nor is it something we simply feel from time to time. It’s much more complex than that. Why? Because there are different types of stress, and they all come with their own characteristics and symptoms. Our approach to how we handle stress also differs depending on the type of stress it is you’re experiencing. For example, is it acute, episodic, or chronic? Knowing the difference is important.

As a family physician, acute stress is the most common form of stress that Dr. Ali Ghahary sees in patients. This type of stress is often brought on by being under pressure or having demands placed upon you, and while those are the types of challenges that some people might find thrilling – at least initially – it’s when they become repetitive that you may start to feel as though you are being tested beyond your limits, thus causing the feeling of stress. When it comes to acute stress, the symptoms are easily recognizable. You might feel anxious, have an upset stomach, or develop tension headaches. You may even develop muscle pain, back pain, stomach gastrointestinal problems (such as heartburn, constipation or diarrhea), sweaty palms, and elevated blood pressure. We all experience acute stress at some point in our lives, and it’s usually easy to manage.

Episodic stress, on the other hand, tends to occur more frequently. It is most common in individuals who are in a rush to get somewhere or do something, take on too many projects (whether it’s work related or personal), and cannot seem to get good grasp or handle at all of the demands and things vying for their attention. Individuals suffering from episodic stress tend to feel anxious, tense, nervous, and are usually irritable – and that irritability can sometimes be mistaken for hostility, too. It’s also not uncommon for an individual with episodic stress to be in a rush and abrupt, and they may notice a decline in both personal and interpersonal relationships. There are also two variations of episodic stress – Type A, where individuals tend to be competitive, aggressive and impatient, or Type B, where individuals exhibit opposite behaviours and over-worry. Symptoms of episodic stress are similar to those of acute stress, but also include migraine headaches, chest pain, and even heart disease. In order to decrease episode stress, certain lifestyle changes may have to be made, as well as how you perceive the world. To do this, Dr. Ali Ghahary says patients may benefit from seeing some type of therapist – either a psychologist or psychiatrist – as well as partaking in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Lastly, there’s chronic stress. Compared to acute and episode stress, chronic stress can be much more difficult to treat – and patients often experience it day after day as it wreaks havoc on both the body and the mind. Chronic stress can be triggered by a variety of different things, such as childhood trauma (or any kind of trauma in general), declining personal relationships (such as going through a bad break-up or divorce, ending friendships, or family matters), problems at school or in the workplace, etc. As we go through these experiences, we often internalize them, which only makes the feelings of stress and anxiety even worse. With chronic stress a person often feels hopeless and as if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. How chronic stress impacts a person can be devastating. It can cause an individual to seclude him or herself, make them more prone to violence, develop addiction (such as alcoholism and illicit drug use) as a coping mechanism, and even increase the risk of other mental health disorders like depression, which can increase the risk of suicide. It is important for anyone experiencing chronic stress to have ongoing treatment, which is often both by use of medications as well as therapy, and report any abnormal thoughts or behaviours to your physician.

For more information on stress, visit the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health website at