Lesson 2: Acute Stress


Gain basic understanding of Acute Stress


  • Read the following material
  • Activity


Acute Stress:

When our ancestors hunted and gathered their foods they encountered certain threats, like coming face to face with a bear, cougar, or their first encounter with the Europeans, this triggered a natural response to these threats, known as acute stress response.

Under this type of experience our body reacts by activating the autonomic nervous system which signals our body to increase levels of cortisol, adrenalin, and other hormones that increase our heart rate, quicken our breath rate, and increase blood pressure.  Blood flow is increased to our large muscles which prepare us to fight or flee.  This is the fight or flight response.

Historically this response was used as a natural survival mechanism; it was activated immediately and shut down as quickly allowing the body to return to what is called homeostasis or its resting state.  This is when we are breathing normally and our bodily functions are normal.

How acute stress occurs?

Our adrenal glands are about the size of walnuts and are located on top of each kidney; the glands manufacture many of the body’s hormones. Inside each gland adrenaline and noradrenaline are produced, these hormones are named after the adrenal glands. The outer layers of the center, is called the adrenal cortex, where several other hormones are produced such as cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

Our adrenals go to work when something threatening occurs to trigger a response that increases our heart rate, blood pressure and releases stored energy for immediate use.  Our digestion is slowed down and our other senses are more focused.  Under threatening situations acute stress response takes priority over all other metabolic functions and wasn’t designed to last very long.

If you have experienced, witnessed or have been confronted with an event that may have resulted in death or serious injury to yourself or someone close to you it can affect you physically and mentally.  Our minds can cause us to detach, feel numb, or not feel anything at all.  We can also feel like we are in a daze or we don’t feel like we are connected with our bodies, “spiritual loss”, nothing seems real.  Sometimes we can’t remember certain times in our lives due to a bad experience. Our identity and perceptions become disconnected from one another, this can create internal conflicts, and we deny our thoughts and feelings to be released.

Our ancestors suffered so many traumas prior to and during colonization that these symptoms have carried over into current generations who are also experiencing traumatic events as a result of the historical events of our past.

Why is this important?

When we experience traumatic events or play them over and over in our minds, the hormones mentioned earlier are also released over and over.  This places a burden on our health physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.   It is important that we seek guidance and care from a professional but include family and spiritual support as we heal.

Quote by Tecumseh-Shawnee

So live your life so that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and Demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people…


You will need pencil and paper

·      Write a definition of acute stress

·      How might acute stress be harmful?

·      Write a story about a situation that may cause someone to experience this type of response.


Counseling Resource:  Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder;

Wise Geek: What is derealization? Written by S.E. Smith;

Wise Geek: What is depersonalization Disorder? Written by Margo Upson;

Information and Thought Portal-Mystical World: Native American Indian Thoughts and Quotes; Tecumseh-Shawnee,


Med Page Today:  Acute Stress Caused by 9/11 Linked to Heart Attacks Years Later;

By Peggy Peck, Executive Editor, MedPage Today
Published: January 08, 2008
Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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