Stress, chronic and acute


We all have stress in our lives. Most of us need some stress to motivate us. Stress can (and does) build to a point where our performance, including our flying performance, is affected.

We have to learn to recognize when we are over stressed and how we can cope with it. The only absence of stress is death.

Stress is anything that: worries us, prods us, thrills us, scares us or threatens us. Stresses can be either acute or chronic.

Acute stress is a short term demand placed on us such as a deadline. Many of us delay performing a task until the deadline approaches. We need the motivation of the deadline.

Many of us seek thrills such as bungee jumping, sky diving or skiing very fast. These thrills make us feel alive.

Chronic stress is long term stress and includes such negative and positive events such as getting married, getting divorced, buying or selling a house, caring for sick family members, financial difficulties or constant conflict at home or in the work place.

Stressors can be physical, which include temperature, humidity, weather, noise, vibration, poor lighting, and prolonged discomfort. Most physical stressors result in acute stress.

Physiological stressors can include fatigue, lack of physical fitness, hunger, poor nutrition, disease, and substance abuse. These stressors usually result in chronic stress. Emotional stressors include all of the positive and negative events listed above.

Acute stress or physical stressors when placed on top of the emotional and physiological stressors already in our lives can place us in distress – we blow up, we make inappropriate decisions, we lose concentration, or we get tunnel vision and lose situational awareness.

We all have differing abilities in the amount of stress we can handle and all of us handle stress (or not handle it) in our own way. Some of us compartmentalize our feelings better than others. Those in high stress jobs tend to be better at compartmentalization.

All of us however, tend to underestimate the amount of stress we are under and we tend to overestimate the amount of stress we can handle. Most of us don’t recognize that we are under chronic stress until it has long since become apparent to others.

When we do realize that we are under stress, we usually try to continue with most of what we are doing as we don’t want to admit our problems to others.

Symptoms of over stress include feeling pressured by others and situations, upset stomach, anxiety, emotional outbursts, difficulty sleeping, conflict in relationships, withdrawal from communicating with others and depression.

We need to watch for these symptoms in ourselves. We cannot deal with over stress unless we know we are over stressed. If we allow over stress to continue for a long period, we can develop high blood pressure, headaches, ulcers and eventually heat problems.

It is usually easier to recognize the symptoms of distress in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. This may put us in a difficult position. Pointing out that someone else is over stressed may not be appreciated.

The first symptom listed above should be a signal that stresses are building and that something has just occurred that placed some additional stress upon us. Now is the time to do something to reduce at least that additional stress and take a look at what is going on in our lives that has caused the stress build up.

Acute stress can usually be dealt with by:

  • taking a few deep breaths;
  • taking a five minute break from the situation;
  • going for a short walk;
  • by voicing our frustrations to someone;
  • by focusing on the job and putting our frustrations aside; or
  • by simply acknowledging that we are frustrated.

Some ways to cope with chronic stress are:

  • Planning – make things predictable. The fewer openings there are for the unexpected to occur the less is the chance for more stresses to occur.
  • Keep things in perspective – “Don’t sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff.”
  • Exercise improves our mental state and helps us cope with our stress.
  • Try to understand the other side of the situation or the other person’s point of view.
  • Identify the source of the stress and develop a strategy to deal with it, or get help in dealing with it.
  • Take a vacation.
  • Get a hobby.
  • Get more sleep.
  • Find a way to get some laughter in your life. Laughter really is the best medicine, especially for stress.
  • Sex apparently reduces stress.

A stressed out pilot is an unsafe pilot. We cannot afford to have our judgment impaired, lose our ability to concentrate or lose situational awareness.

A little self examination is necessary to decide if we feel pressured to make the flight. If we do feel a little pressure, we must evaluate the stresses in our lives and then make a rational decision on whether we are safe to fly or not. We must remember that we tend to underestimate the stresses we are under and overestimate our ability to cope with them.

Have a safe flight.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.