written by
Lucinda Koza

How to Handle Acute Stress vs Chronic Stress as a Caregiver

4 min read , February 1, 2023

Stress: that awful feeling when the pressure of deadlines, the onset of challenges, or the general buzz of anxiety sink into your bones. It’s your body’s way of telling you something needs to be on your radar, and like a hungry pet, it’s going to make it really difficult to pay attention to anything else.

Caregivers are particularly susceptible to the effects of acute and chronic stress, because they are essentially stressing for two. A person providing care for a loved one often has a few micro-emergencies to manage every day in addition to the ongoing challenges.

Throw in a career and a family, and caregiving can become a pressure cooker of acute stress vs chronic stress that can take a serious toll on your health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable, but how we manage it has a huge impact on our quality of life. We’re going to explain acute stress vs chronic stress, what they do to you, and how you can anticipate and mitigate their effects to make caregiving the fulfilling and rewarding experience it ought to be.

The Causes and Effects of Stress

Stressful situations can be physical, psychological, or both. When they occur, our body releases cortisol and adrenaline to cut out nonessential thoughts and focus on the threat.

This heightened state of invigilation is extremely useful in fight-or-flight situations, but it comes at a cost: by overriding our logical and emotional faculties, we lose the ability to make cool, objective judgements.

Because caregiving tends to be a high-stress environment—and therefore difficult for our brains to manage in the moment—it’s particularly important that caregivers understand the differences of acute stress vs chronic and how to deal with each of them.

Acute Stress

Acute stresses are immediate threats or challenges we need to handle right now. If your mother slips and falls, that’s an acute stressor (forget the baby food, get to mom!).

Acute stress can ruin your day and leave you feeling like you just left a warzone. These events often make you sideline a lot of important tasks, and that means tomorrow you’ll be playing catch-up. The collateral damage from acute stresses can take days or even weeks to subside.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is caused by big-picture, long-term pressures. It’s the daily anxiety from medical bills slowly draining your savings or watching a parent’s gradual deterioration. It grinds you down and turns your whole world gray.

Chronic stress is responsible for a lot of the long-term negative effects we typically associate with stress. Depression, emotional detachment, and health issues like chronic pain and substance abuse are all by-products of living with chronic stress.

Managing Caregiver Stress

Fortunately, while you may not be able to avoid or eliminate the stress of caregiving, there are plenty of things you can do to minimize its impact. It’s not always easy (thanks, stress hormones!), but with a few strategies and some planning you can take back control and start living life on your own terms.

Set Routines

Plans are useless, but planning is everything.” —D. Eisenhower

Routines are immensely helpful for mitigating both acute and chronic stressors. The more structure you create, the better prepared you’ll be when challenges arise.

Look, the universe delights in upsetting apple carts, but there’s a big difference between having a plan and being totally unprepared. Routines mean normalcy exists, and when things go crazy your routine will be the life preserver you cling to.

Routines are also hugely beneficial for managing chronic stress because they help you chip away at big problems that take a long time to solve. If you know you’re on track to eliminate a debt or manage future caregiving issues, the pressure won’t seem so oppressive.

Build in Breaks

The last thing your brain wants to do under fire is lighten up, even if it’s objectively appropriate. Stress reactions magnify problems, and that means losing perspective and control.

When your blood pressure rises and you feel that anxiety creeping in, it’s ok to call a timeout. Take 5 minutes, make a cup of tea, and let those cortisol levels mellow. Take a deep breath and get back to it.

Breaks matter in the big picture too. Make sure you build in “you time” when you’re looking at the weekly schedule. That cup of tea should be on the calendar as well as the countertop! Seeing the ebb and flow of challenges and down time on paper can make all the difference.

Community Support

One of the worst acute and chronic stressors is feeling like you have to manage everything on your own. It’s awful, and sometimes you just need a brain to pick and a shoulder to cry on.

Finding the right online support community is a game-changer for caregivers, and particularly younger professionals who are balancing a career, family, and uncertainty about their place in the world. In the time it takes to grab your phone, you can access the expert advice and caregiver experience and support you need to bring those stress levels back down to earth.

I-Ally Will Help You Steady the Ship

Understanding acute stress vs chronic stress can make a huge impact in your caregiving experience. However, even the best of us sometimes need a helping hand to pick us up, dust us off, and reinvigorate our spirits. I-Ally is an online community of caregiving professionals and in-home caretakers that focuses on the uniquely stressful challenges Millennials face when caring for a loved one.

We know it’s hard—because we’ve been there. Let the I-Ally community stand with you.