Short-term and long-term stress

Stress – short, long and burnout

With short-term stress, there is an end, a period during which it is possible to unwind, collect thoughts and get back to normal. With long-term stress, there is no apparent end and, like an overwrought computer, the brain starts to pack up under the continuous onslaught of strain. Burnout is the body’s way of saying STOP but there is no predicting exactly when the moment is going to arrive.

All you can do is take account of stress levels and try to prevent burnout from happening – if you ignore the preliminary symptoms, the consequences can be dangerous. However, having said that, it is all too easy to get swept up in a tide of events  that carry you to the breaking point and it is often not easy to take control. Here is a hypothetical example of how a person could get carried to snapping point through no fault of his own and without even realising it.

Short-term stress

Jim, a 50-year-old manager of a printing company, arrives at work knowing that he has an important meeting to attend with his superiors to discuss his performance. The meeting goes better than he had anticipated and he goes away happy with what was said. He has time to relax before returning to his normal work routine and his body has time to regain its normal balance without any ill effects.

Long-term stress

One outcome of Jim’s performance review is that he is relocated to a bigger site. He now has to commute an hour each way to work, driving across a busy town. Before, he had a 15–minute journey and that was on a bad day. But that is not the only new stressor he has to face. Shortly after the move, Jim has a meeting with his new superiors which does not go well and his performance is criticized. His new workload is strange to him and finds it hard to concentrate as he is constantly interrupted. He rarely finds time to take a decent break, and one day the computer crashes and he loses hours of work. Nothings seem to go right.


Jim’s life repeats the above pattern for a period of several months. His work constantly criticised and so he puts in longer hours trying to turn thing around. As he gets more and more worn down, he becomes withdrawn. He feels and fears failure. He starts to avoid his colleagues and is reluctant to communicate with anyone, including his wife. He begins taking time off for a variety of ailments and his isolation grows. He is worried about the prospect of redundancy and feels unable to cope. He is reaching burnout stage.

Stress and illness

By now you will be acquainted with the symptoms of stress and should have an idea of what stage of stress you are at. During the alarm phase there is little impact on health providing the body has time to return to normal once the stress situation has been dealt with. However, if stress is experienced over a long period of time, then illness is a realistic possibility long before the burnout stage.

Everyone responds differently to stress situations and everybody has a different threshold as to how much stress they can take before becoming ill. Some can survive the most amazing stresses for long periods – as seen in prisoner of war camps, for example – but others succumb sooner. The relevance of stress regarding the onset of illness depends on the severity and duration of the stressors and on your own vulnerability.

Most people have weak spots, and it is these which will be the first to give way to pressure. The nature of the weak spots will play a large part in determining whether constant stress results in a minor or major illness. Alcoholism, depression, persistent diarrhoea, impotence, menstrual disorders, migraine, psoriasis, and intestinal ulcers are just a few of the illnesses that are often related to stress.

Take the time to reflect on your own health for a moment or two – it could be that minor illnesses that you just take for granted are in fact stress-related. Do you get colds that you cannot shake off, or are you ever plagued by bouts of constipation? If so, do they coincide with stressful times in your life? Make a list of any illnesses that you have had recently and then try to remember what the major stress factors were in your life at the time.

It is also worth while noting in a diary recurring health problems that you are aware of – persistent headaches or neckaches, for example. Against this list write down events that might have caused your symptoms. The longer you keep the diary, the more comprehensive the overall picture will be.

Diary record of health/stress
September 17 Diarrhoea Sleepless night worrying about competence test
September 19Neckache all afternoon I could throttle Jo-Jo at work – she makes me mad
September 22Feel really down Baby cried all last night
September 23Diarrhoea (again) Results of test due
September 25Depressed and twitchy Baby teething – he finds it hard to sleep
September 29Bad neckache Jo-Jo at it again first thing on Monday morning

Prevention is better than cure so it pays to learn how to manage your stress in a positive way so that you can prevent stress-related illnesses and diseases creeping up on you. In Part Two of Stress Management you will learn how to adapt your lifestyle and behaviour to improve your health and general wellbeing.

For now, move on to the next section – “How do you cope with stress at the moment”.

How do you cope with stress at the moment >>

Text Copyright © Alix Needham
Find out more about the author here

Find a local practitioner
Search Therapist

Do not copy from this page - plagiarism will be detected by Copyscape. If you want to use our content click here for syndication criteria