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What Causes Stress?

You likely could give a good description of circumstances or persons that leave you at the end of your rope. Perhaps you have been feeling burned out and exhausted for years. Maybe you can’t understand why it is hard to scrape up enough energy for the simple tasks of life. Whether you are in a demanding job with constant pressure, a challenging graduate program in a competitive academic environment or living frugally as a retiree trying to make ends meet, your circumstances can often overcome your ability to cope, straining your stress response mechanisms to the limit.

Researchers have learned that most things that move us away from normal expectations of life trigger a stress response. Whether these events are real (actual emergency or trauma) or perceived (anxiety about a potential event), the stress response is surprisingly similar. When you constantly trigger your stress response mechanisms with events which are not resolved, your response mechanisms begin to become disjointed, improperly regulated, and exhausted; sometimes they fail altogether.

Three of the most common chronic stressors are:

  • imbalance in blood sugar,
  • chronic inflammation somewhere in the body and mental and
  • emotional stress

Ironically, each of these events is a potent stimulator of cortisol – the adrenal hormone produced to help us recover from stress. The abnormally high release of cortisol in the body causes the body damage over time.

Scientists who study stress say that the events that cause the most mental and environmental stress usually have four similarities. First, we are stressed by things which are new to us. First-time experiences cause you to anticipate how you will feel during that event (pleasure or pain), triggering a stress response. Combine with this, unpredictability, the second feature of common stressors and you heighten the stress response. First-time driving lessons on a busy metropolitan freeway are a good example—for both driver and instructor!

The third component is a sense of threat to your physical well-being or psyche. While not always thought of as stress, the nervous anticipation of someone else’s opinion of you is a threat to your psyche, and therefore a source of stress. Lastly, common stressors typically cause you to feel you have experienced loss of control over your situation. A perfect, yet subtle example of this is the person in middle management. They feel the responsibility of performing new tasks (novelty) which typically have unpredictable outcomes and threaten their job approval while feeling like they don’t have control over the outcome.

This is a perfect recipe for stress. Not surprisingly, middle managers are often considered to have the highest stress in most corporations, leading to high turn-over, burnout and poor job satisfaction.

As you take the Life Stress Inventory Test, ask yourself how each checked item adds to your overall stress load. Think about what components (novelty, unpredictability, threat, loss of control) make a particular event or relationship the most stressful.

It is important to remember that your perception of an event is really what creates most of the stress—often more than the event itself. After all, what builds stress in you might be another person’s adventure: think skydiving, cocktail party, public speaking!