We feel like screaming out, "Stop the world - I want to get off" (to borrow the telling title of a 1960's musical)
Some stress, we are told, is actually good for us.
It stimulates, energizes and motivates.
It improves our performance, productivity and pleasure.
But we're told too much stress is bad. It's debilitating. It's discouraging.
And it's dangerous to your health.
Long term stress is a stalking killer.
So it's important to know: what are the major causes of stress?
This page is an introduction to causes of stress. Follow this link for more detail on the 7 biggest causes of stress commonly experienced in our modern world.
Stressors are the events, conditions, activities, emotions or other stimuli that trigger our experience of stress.
But stressors are not the same for everyone.
Stress is a unique, personal experience.
We don't all respond in the same way to identical potential stressors.
What stresses me may excite and energize you, and vice versa. I may be terrified at the very idea of jumping out of a plane wearing a parachute; you may be thrilled at the prospect of your next jump. I may get a kick out of being asked to speak in public, while you go weak in the knees at the thought of it. We're all made of different stuff.
Stress affects each of us differently. I may get headaches and become irritable, while you may suffer digestive and sleep problems.
As individuals we are able to cope with different amounts of stress - we each have a different stress threshold.
And we each cope with stress in unique ways.
In fact the whole subject of stress is complex. That makes it difficult to closely define the causes of stress.
Since it is important to reduce unwanted stress in your life, you will want to know what causes you to experience stress.
This will be critical when you look at stress management techniques, and tips for reducing stress, to find what will work for you.
In fact it's probably fair to say much of the stress we experience is totally unnecessary.
Some time ago it occurred to me that many things I feared would happen to me in my life never actually came to pass. I'd dread the worst, but events would somehow turn out fine.
I'd realize I had worried over nothing.
On the other hand, more often than not the bad things that do happen in our lives are completely unexpected. They come out of left field, without warning and totally unpredicted.
Of course, the same can be said about the good things that happen to us. The twists and turns of our lives catch us by surprise and as readily leave us delighted as devastated.
Which reminds me of an ancient Chinese Taoist tale I heard long ago:
One day the horse ran away. His neighbors felt sad for him and said, "We are sorry. This is a terrible thing that has happened to you." But the farmer simply said "Maybe."
A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it two wild horses. The neighbors rejoiced at the farmer's luck and congratulated him. "This is truly your good fortune." But the farmer just said "Maybe."
The next day the farmer's son tried to break in one of the wild horses. Instead the horse threw him and so the son broke his leg. The neighbors offered sympathy for this misfortune, but the farmer again said "Maybe."
The following week, officers from the Emperor's army arrived at the village to conscript young men to fight in a distant border war. The farmer's son was rejected because his leg was broken. When the neighbors said how lucky this was, the farmer replied "Maybe."
The wisdom inthis tale speaks to our concern with the causes of stress. The farmer knew that the meaning of life's events alters with time and context. We all have examples of this:
You are stressed when your boss asks you to work back and you miss dinner with your friends. The next day you learn they all got food poisoning.
You panic when you miss the plane but find out later the meeting was canceled anyway. Because you were back in the office you were able to take a call which led to a major deal and a big boost for your career.
Many people are fond of sayings such as trust in the Universe, it was meant to happen, or there is a reason for everything. There is wisdom in these sayings. They lead us to reflect on the larger patterns and directions in our lives, and the transitory nature of single events. You'll get over it.
As we shall see, a good deal of the stress we experience is self-created because of meanings we place on events, and assumptions we make about the future. We imagine the worst.
Most probably, it will never happen.
We lose our job, our partner leaves us or the stock market plunges.
These are called external stressors.
What is perhaps less well appreciated is the role of internal stressors. These are causes of stress that lie within ourselves. They are psychological or emotional in nature.
For example some people worry about their job, finances or health with no specific external reason for doing so. Some people, as we say, are just 'born worriers.'
Internal stress is difficult to manage, as there is no external stressor to remove.
The enemy lies within, and is not always easy to find or eliminate.
Understanding what causes our stress however, is more complicated than simply distinguishing between internal and external causes.
We react differently as individuals because of our unique mental make-up.
An external event that is severely stressful for me may be may be just a tiresome, niggling incident to you. Or you may enjoy it.
Let's say I'm afraid of flying and are rather fond of it. You and I would react quite differently if we were required to travel by air to another city for an important meeting.
I would experience considerable stress, just at the thought of the ordeal I had to undergo. You would probably look forward to a pleasant trip.
Clearly an external event alone, in this case the requirement to fly, is insufficient to explain stress.
We each react differently to the same external situation. This is due to differences in our internal states.
Your internal state is always subject to change. New knowledge and emotional experiences can alter your outlook and strengthen or weaken your ability to cope with particular types of events.
Changes to your internal state may be small or significant. Depending on your internal state at any time, any events or circumstances in your life may become potential causes of stress.
Suppose you are a trained firefighter, while I have no experience at all of dangerous fire. How differently would we react if we were trapped by fire inside an unfamiliar house?
Armed with your training and experience as a firefighter, you will act immediately and rationally with a view to survival. Faced with the identical situation, I am likely to suffer extreme stress and may be unable to respond to the emergency in a helpful way.
The external circumstances are identical for both of us: surrounded by fire with no obvious means of escape, and in extreme danger of dying if we don't act decisively and effectively.
However we have very different internal states.
You will be on familiar ground and will quickly sum up the situation: possible exit strategies, probable path of flames and fumes, potential means of shielding your body from heat and smoke while breaking out, and so forth. Your coping resources would be equal to the task and you would probably escape the blaze unharmed.
I would be at a loss as to what to do, and would likely perish. As much, you could say, consumed by fear and stress as by fire and smoke.
Stress occurs at work, at home, in relationships and in traffic jams. We stress over debt, details and deadlines.
Mostly we are stressed by more than one thing at a time - by multiple stressors. You know the feeling - everything is happening at once! It seems that stressors prey in packs. They don't act alone!
Multiple stressors may occur simultaneously. For example, there's a knock on the door while you're busy with a sensitive phone call, and the baby is crying. How can I cope with all this?
Multiple stressors may also occur sequentially. That happens when you are still somewhat stressed from one or more recent incidents, then along comes another issue that adds to your existing stress load. For example, last week you heard about the death of a dear friend, you're now in the middle of tricky negotiations for a new home and your young daughter has just been diagnosed as diabetic.
The stress you experience is cumulative. The cumulative stress load you feel at a point in time is the aggregate of stress produced by current and recent stressors.
It's your ongoing cumulative stress load that is so potentially damaging to your health.
Obviously this is important, but it is not necessarily the main factor determining your stress experience. The nature of the stressor may be internal or external, real or imagined. It may represent a genuine threat, or you may just think it does.
Your body does not know the difference. It is programmed to respond to a perceived threat.
Recall the above examples of external stressors - the requirement to fly in a plane (statistically quite a safe thing to do), and getting trapped in a burning house (a genuinely life-threatening situation).
In both cases, despite extreme difference in the real level of threat involved, you and I experienced very different stress reactions, because our differing internal (emotional and psychological) states caused us to perceive the level of threat differently.
In the case of an internal stressor, the stress experience is driven entirely by our unique personal emotional and psychological state.
For example, let's say you are stressed because you think your boss has lost confidence in you. Whether she actually has or not is irrelevant. She may have been grumpy because her son got into trouble at school. You have just misinterpreted her body language. She wasn't sending you a signal about anything! There was no 'situation.' It's in your mind. Internal stress.
But - perception is reality.
As we have just seen, for a situation or event to be stressful to you, you must perceive it to be stressful. Your body doesn't know the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. Either situation will be stressful if you believe the threat to be real.
You can look at your life is a 'series of situations:' Your bus is late; your boss enters your office; it looks like rain.
Unconsciously, our mind is constantly at work assessing each situation.
You appraise each one to determine whether, for example, it is potentially threatening; whether it represents a possible harm or loss to you; whether it is 'challenging' or benign.
Importantly, your appraisal includes an assessment of your ability to cope with the situation.
In my earlier house fire example, we may suppose your stress level as a trained firefighter to be moderate, assuming you believed you could probably cope adequately with the situation.
Evolution has equipped you with a response system that activates automatically when you face immediate physical danger. We call this the fight or flight response.
Most 'threats' we face today however (unlike the need to escape a burning building) don't require an immediate physical response.
More often the required response needs to be calm, deliberative, socially sensitive. You may to seek agreement and cooperation, and account for the needs and opinions of others, before you act. Often complex problems require that you do not act immediately. You need to consider and examine ramifications and impacts or await further information, agreement or developments.
Your response you choose for dealing with a situation a is gnerally known as your coping strategy.
Your coping strategy may be perfectly appropriate to the needs of the situation but unfortunately it does not 'burn up' the adrenaline and other chemicals released by the fight or flight response.
You are left with a bunch of unwanted chemicals running around inside your body.
It's the resulting chemical imbalance in your body that leads to the experience we call stress.
We all experience some degree of stress. Some is beneficial, though much is harmful. To recap:
Many experts believe stress is among the biggest killers of our time. Research has linked it to leading causes of death including cancer and heart diseases. Long term stress can cause serious, irreversible and even fatal damage.
Are you stressed? Find out now if you are at risk.
The worst thing you can lose in life is your health!
If you haven't done so, start at the beginning, where we ask what is stress? See how the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response releases chemicals into your bloodstream; this normal and natural survival mechanism can harm your health if it persists over the long term.
If you?re feeling crushed by a continuing failure to cope with distressing demands in your life, you may be suffering from learned helplessness. Learn how to recognise and deal with this condition.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by life events bringing significant changes in your life, try this life events stress test.
Read about the the biggest causes of stress. The 7 biggest causes of stress are listed below, with links for more detail on each one.
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As well as causing stress, poor health makes us more vulnerable to stress from any other source and it reduces our ability to cope with stress. This triple-whammy puts poor health at the top of the list of the biggest sources of stress
It's everywhere in our daily lives. Noise, crowds, pollution. Environmental stresses, although individually minor, can accumulate to form a high background stress load, diminishing your capacity for dealing with stress from other sources.
These are among our biggest causes of stress brought about by the adjustments we must make to adapt to major changes in our lives.
This occurs when the stress comes from the inside. The cause of your stress is psychological or emotional. No external stressor need be present, though you may imagine one.
This major problem can come from poorly designed jobs and working conditions, excessive work pressure, lack of control and autonomy at work, unclear job roles and responsibilities and relationship problems with co-workers.
Closely related to work stress, this is about factors like fear of losing your job , failing career momentum, poor job satisfaction or recognition, and problems balancing work and lifestyle.
This occurs when your cumulative stress load reaches a level beyond your ability to cope satisfactorily. With our busy and rushed lifestyles we sometimes face many issues simultaneously, or within a short span of time, creating an extreme total stress burden.
When a high cumulative stress load persists over an extensive period, mental and physical exhaustion can set in, compromising your ability to cope.
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Stress is common and harms your health.
Learn how to deal with it.
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