The Different Types of Stress

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Not sure if you are or aren’t stressed? And if you need to worry, or things will be okay? It can help to know the different types of stress when it comes to psychology, and which ones put you most at risk.

The three types of stress

First things first - there are not just three types of stress! This is a false quote gone internet wild, seemingly started by one article claiming the American Psychological Association (APA) says this, and other sites copying without checking facts. The APA never said this.

Psychological stress is a spectrum, and there are many ways to describe it. General stress versus severe stress. Positive stress versus negative stress. Workplace stress versus family stress. Time stress versus situational stress. Or, yes, acute versus episodic vs chronic.

Acute stress vs episodic stress vs chronic stress

These widely quoted ‘three types of stress’ that pop up if you google 'types of stress"? They are terms sometimes used by researchers studying stress.

But these types of stress are more commonly used to describe the stressors themselves, the things that are causing the stress, over actually being a form of stress.

For example, a study on stress and health problems explains that chronic stressors “reflect persistent, negative life situations”. As for episodic stressors, they are “intermediate-length stressors, which reflect relatively transient, negative life situations”. And a study on stress and the human immune system points out that acute stressors are those 'lasting minutes'.

A more accurate way to describe the stress spectrum?

What matters is finding a way of looking at stress that helps you understand what you are going through.

Dr. Karl Albrecht, in his popular workplace book Stress and the Manager,  rather helpfully explains stress in terms of time, anticipation, situations, and encounters.

  • time stress: never feeling on top of things, worried about being late
  • anticipation stress: worried about what 'might' happen in the future
  • situational stress: stressed out by actual life challenges and conflict
  • encounter stress: social stress, where you feel misunderstood.

Can stress be a positive?

We all have different limits for identifying stress. For example, if you are doing group work and have to go around and introduce yourself, that slight nervous feeling might be described by one participant as ‘excitement’, but for another person as ‘stress’. And indeed that person, if they are shy and introverted, might be experiencing more of a physical feeling of stress.

But this might still be a positive form of stress, because it’s not dangerous. Instead, it’s a moment to push ourselves to do something beneficial and make new social connections.

As the Wikipedia page about stress shares, “Small amounts of stress may be beneficial, as it can improve performance, motivation, and reaction to the environment.

This type of stress is called ‘eustress’. The opposite of distress, where we are stressed because of danger, eustress refers to feeling stressed because we are being slightly pushed outside of our comfort zone in a positive way.

What type of stress do I have?

Worrying about what type of stress you have can just leave you, well... more stressed!

Look to instead understand your stress. To acknowledge whether stress is directly affecting your ability to cope and is something you do or don't know the answer to.

Stress is a problem when we are overwhelmed and can't find answers forward, and when it doesn't seem to be getting better but to be getting worse.

Ask yourself good questions such as:

  • Do I know exactly why I am stressed or do I just feel overwhelmed? Am I aware of what would make my feelings of stress stop?
  • If I asked other people to help, could I quickly solve this stressful issue?
  • Or do I feel so stressed it feels out of control and like nothing can help?
  • Have my feelings of stress been going on for a month or more?
  • Do I feel more and more stressed as time passes?

And if I can't cope with my stress?

Then it's important to seek support. This might mean reaching out to friends or your boss to help find some help for the stressful situation. Or is might mean talking it through with a coach.

In the case where your stress seems to have no cause, has been going on for several weeks, and seems to grow no matter what you try? It's important to note that stress left unchecked can evolve into anxiety.

If you are having feelings of fear and increasingly illogical thinking, it might be time to seek the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist before anxiety rolls into a harder to treat anxiety disorder.

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