Stress is an almost inevitable part of our human existence, and almost anything in our personal environments may lead us to experience pressure and anxiety. Anything that leads to an anxiety response is known as a ‘stressor’. On another page, I look at some of its individual causes, but on this page, I look briefly at why we experience it– what causes us to experience stress.
Different people have different causes (which can be real or imagined). There are two reasons for this: firstly, we lead different lives, and so experience different issues and events in our lives; secondly, we each have different perceptions of the nature of each life event, and of our ability to cope with them. Something that causes an anxiety response in one person might cause only a positive response in another person – something that one person might find stressful might seem normal to another person.
There are many causes of stress. The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory lists 43 stressful life events that can lead to illness – and even this is not an exhaustive list!
If you’ve already read the page on this site entitled: ‘Stress’ (link below) then you will have read these definitions:
“Stress, in human biological and psychological terms, is the failure to respond appropriately to any perceived physical or emotional threat (whether real or imagined).”
“Stress is the state of mind we experience when we feel that there is a mismatch between the perceived demands placed upon us and our perceived abilities to cope with those demands.”
“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”
One of the keywords in those descriptions is: ‘perceived’. This means that the experience of stress is individual – it depends on how threatening the individual perceives the situation to be. As I write on another page (‘Stress’ – see link below) there are two reasons that we each experience a different response to stressors, and experience stress differently as individuals: firstly, we lead different lives, and so experience different issues and events in our lives; secondly, we each have different perceptions of the nature of each life event, and of our ability to cope with them. Something that causes an anxiety response in one person might cause only a positive response in another person – something that one person might find stressful might seem normal to another person. This relates to the concepts of ‘eustress’ and ‘distress’. Some stressors generate a ‘buzz’ and motivate improved performance – eustress, while some stressors generate a state of persistent anxiety – distress. However, we are individuals, and a stressor that might create the enhancement of function in one person might lead to anxiety in another person. Additionally, the length of time a person experiences stress and the intensity with which a person might experience stress can vary depending on the emotional condition of that person at the time of experiencing the stressor.
Here are some examples of circumstances that some individuals might find stressful, but which other individuals would find energising: speaking in public; working to tight deadlines.
However, there are some circumstances that are thought to lead to stress, and the remainder of this page covers those stressors.
Top causes of stress
What are the most stressful events in life?
In 1967, Dr Thomas Holmes and Dr Richard Rahe (a medical student at the time) from Washington University, working from the examination of the medical records of over 5,000 patients created the Social Readjustment Rating Scale – now more commonly known as the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, or Holmes Rahe Stress Scale. Further studies (in 1970, 1972, and 1978) validate the reliability of the link between these stressful life events and illness.
A simple internet search will generate full details of the stress scale (for non-adults as well as for adults), but here are the top ten life events that can cause stress that can lead to illness:
Top ten stressful life events
- Spouse's death
- Marital separation
- Jail term
- Death of close family member
- Personal injury or illness
- Being fired at work
- Marital reconciliation
Work related causes of stress
Workplace stress can occur when, for an employee, there is a mismatch between the job demands and an employee’s perceived ability to cope with those demands (personal capabilities, or resources) – leading to a harmful emotional, psychological, and physical response.
In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines workplace stress as: “the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope.”
At the root of much work-related stress is a feeling of loss of control, and loss of power. People who feel they have very little influence over the way they do their work can experience stress.
Here are the other main causes of stress at work:
- Excessively high or unrealistic workloads and expectations, especially if there are also unrealistic deadlines. Conversely, insufficient workloads can also be stressful because people can feel that their skills are being undervalued!
- Poor work relationships, especially with a worker’s immediate manager;
- Lack of information and support from colleagues and superiors;
- Unacceptable relationships with either colleagues or managers (e.g. bullying; sexual or racial harassment);
- Employees not understanding their role and responsibilities;
- Regular or radical change within an organisation.
Personal & domestic causes of stress
The home and personal relationships provide many causes of stress:
- death of a loved one;
- separation or divorce;
- changes in financial state leading to debt or other money concerns;
- health challenges (either personal health or a loved one’s health);
- arguments or other conflict within the family (including the extended family);
- pregnancy or birth of a child;
- caring for dependents; moving house (or taking a mortgage on an existing property);
- difficulties or disputes with neighbours;
- living with a partner with an addiction (alcohol or drugs).
Other causes of stress
Outside of domestic and work life there are a number of other circumstances that can be considered stressful:
- changes in personal habits (e.g. giving up smoking; changes in exercise routine; starting a diet);
- experiencing discrimination, victimization or prejudice;
- isolation through lack of friends of family support;
- unemployment (which creates issues around self-worth in addition to the financial implications);
- time pressures (e.g. driving in traffic jams; car breakdown);
- poor housing or other social conditions;
- self-generated stress (negative self-talk; perfectionism; unrealistic expectations; inability to cope with uncertainty.)
In summary, stress is a result of the interaction between circumstances and the ability of the individual to cope with those circumstances. There are a large number of different causes of stress, each of which might lead to adverse emotional, physical and psychological response, but which, cumulatively can lead to physical and psychological illness.
If you are affected by stress, you may find this stress management hypnosis CD I have recorded helpful. The program contains techniques that are proven to reduce the impact of stress in your life - both in the moment (as stressful events occur) and in the long term.