Dealing with Acute Stress: An Effective, Evidence-Based Approach

Acute stress is a natural response to a specific event or series of events that trigger feelings of threat or harm. While it can be unsettling, understanding its roots and learning effective coping strategies can be crucial in handling it well.

Understanding Acute Stress

Acute stress is usually short-term, lasting minutes to hours, or even days. This type of stress response typically occurs in reaction to an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional, or psychological (American Psychological Association, 2020^1). When the threat passes, stress levels usually return to normal. However, frequent or intense acute stress can lead to chronic stress, which is more detrimental to health.

Recognizing Acute Stress

Acute stress can manifest in various ways, including physical symptoms like headaches, stomach discomfort, increased heart rate, or mental symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and difficulty focusing (APA, 2020^1). It’s crucial to recognize these signs to address them appropriately.

Effective Ways to Manage Acute Stress

Here are evidence-based strategies for managing acute stress:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that negatively influence behavior and emotions. CBT can effectively help manage stress and its associated symptoms (Hofmann, Asnaani, Vonk, Sawyer, & Fang, 2012^2).

2. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR is a program that teaches mindfulness to help individuals cope with stress, pain, and illness. It incorporates mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga. Research has shown MBSR to reduce stress and improve mental health outcomes (Khoury, Sharma, Rush, & Fournier, 2015^3).

3. Regular Exercise

Physical activity increases the production of endorphins—your brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters, leading to reduced stress levels. Regular exercise can also improve your mood, act as a form of meditation, and improve sleep, all beneficial for stress management (Harvard Medical School, 2018^4).

4. Healthy Diet

Certain foods may contribute to increased stress levels. Consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, regulate mood, and alleviate stress (University of Michigan, 2020^5).

5. Adequate Sleep

Poor sleep can exacerbate stress, while quality sleep can enhance mood and energy levels. Regularly obtaining seven to nine hours of sleep can aid in managing acute stress (National Sleep Foundation, 2020^6).

6. Social Support

Connecting with others—friends, family, or support groups—can provide emotional assistance and reduce feelings of stress. The comfort of knowing one is not alone can be a powerful buffer against acute stress (APA, 2020^1).

Remember, if stress becomes overwhelming or persistent, it’s crucial to seek professional help, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, who can provide further guidance and treatment if necessary.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress effects on the body. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-body
  2. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427–440. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

3. Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 78(6), 519–528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009

  1. Harvard Medical School. (2018). Exercising to relax. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
  2. University of Michigan. (2020). Eating for better mental health. https://medicine.umich.edu/dept/psychiatry/michigan-psychiatry-resources-covid-19/specific-mental-health-conditions/eating-better-mental-health
  3. National Sleep Foundation. (2020). How Does Stress Affect Sleep? https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-does-stress-affect-sleep

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