Stress Causes and Risk Factors

Stress is a part of life

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. We experience it in varying forms and degrees every day. The stress you experience is not necessarily harmful. In small doses, stress can actually be beneficial to us. Stress can help compel us to action; it can result in a new awareness and an exciting new perspective. It is only when the stress becomes too great, affecting our physical or mental functioning, that it becomes a problem. It can become destructive and can turn into distress. Too much stress can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Stress is the body's reaction to any demand or pressure. These demands are called stressors. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body's energy. And sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.

The trouble is, these stress hormones can continue to circulate in the bloodstream long after the crisis has past, making you feel anxious and tense and unable to function effectively. If the stress is ongoing, the hormone levels can stay elevated, weakening the body over time.

Everyone experiences stress a little differently. Some people become angry and act out their stress or take it out on others. Some people internalize it and develop eating disorders or substance abuse problems. And some people who have a chronic illness may find that the symptoms of their illness flare up under an overload of stress.

What causes stress?

People differ dramatically in the type of events they interpret as stressful and the way in which they respond to such stress. For example, people who drive themselves hard and are impatient may be more at risk for stress-related physical problems. Certain occupations, such as law enforcement or air traffic control, are more stressful than others. In addition, people with a personal or family history of mental illness may be affected more by stress.

Research shows that of people aged between 25 and 44, one third see work as their biggest stress. School/college/university is the biggest cause of stress for a quarter (25%) of people between the ages of 16 and 24. Jobs stress out men twice as much as women (30% vs 14%). Family stresses out women three times as much as men (29% vs 9%)

Situations which cause a stress reaction are called stress triggers or stressors. Stress triggers can include:

  • Major life events
    • death of a close family member
    • divorce
    • marital separation
    • personal illness or injury
    • marriage
    • pregnancy
    • retirement
    • buying a house
    • Christmas
  • Big life-changes like leaving school, entering university, being laid off from job, job promotion, moving location. Any sort of change can make you feel stressed, even good change. It's not just the change or event itself, but also how you react to it that matters.
  • Physical sensations
    • noise
    • bright lights
    • heat
    • confined spaces
    • crowding
  • Social interaction with people who are rude, bossy, critical, aggressive.
  • Daily hassles such as traffic jams, deadlines, commuting, misplaced keys, mechanical breakdowns.
  • Lifestyle behaviours such as overeating, drinking, not enough sleep, overloaded schedule.
  • Negative attitudes and feelings, unrealistic expectations, taking things personally, rigid thinking.
  • Uncertain future, such as living on unemployment. Thinking about your future and your career is a common source of stress.
  • Wasting time. We create stress for ourselves by wasting time. But it is important to avoid wasting time that later becomes a source of frustration.
    Some very common time wasters:
    • Disorganization
    • Procrastination: Continuously putting off work and giving priority to less pressing tasks often results in incomplete grades, poor performance, anxiety, and a negative self-image.
    • Burnout/Exhaustion: If you feel this, you should set up some time to relax and rest.
    • Unnecessary perfectionism: You may be spending too much time perfecting one task to an extreme, and find that you lack time for other, equally important, tasks.
    • Visitors and telephone calls: It's important to be sociable, but don't be afraid to mention that you have lots to do, and can only talk or visit for a short time. Try to limit social calls until you are done your work.
  • Work. Job-related stress is extremely common. According to one survey, 40% of American workers describe their jobs as very stressful. Job-related stress is particularly likely to become chronic because it is such a large part of daily life. Stress reduces a worker's effectiveness by impairing concentration, causing sleeplessness, and increasing the risk for illness, back problems, accidents, and lost time. Work stress can lead to harassment or even violence while on the job. In fact, a number of studies are now suggesting that job-related stress is as great a threat to health as smoking or not exercising.
    Among the intense stressors at work are the following:
    • feeling powerless and uninvolved in determining one's own responsibilities
    • unrelenting and unreasonable demands for performance
    • lack of effective communication and conflict-resolution methods among workers and employers
    • lack of job security
    • night-shift work
    • long working hours
    • office politics and conflicts between workers
    • excessive time spent away from home and family
    • wages not commensurate with levels of responsibility
    • excessive work pressure caused by time constraints and/or complexity
    • not knowing what is expected of you, how your manager views your work
    • bullying and other forms of harassment
    • possible or actual redundancy
  • Television, films, computer games - all are mood influencing stress factors. If you subject yourself to miserable, negative experiences portrayed on film and television, and computer games, that you will feel unhappy or even depressed as a result. Negative, violent, miserable images, actions, language and sounds are in effect a form of negative conditioning. They produce stress, anxiety, and actually adversely affect a person's physical health. Conversely, watching or listening to an amusing experience or portrayal in a variety of media (TV, film, even books) has a beneficial effect on your mood, and thereby will tend to improve your physical health, mental state, and reduce your stress levels.

Risk factors influencing the effects of stress

A person's susceptibility to stress can be affected by any or all of these factors, which means that everyone has a different tolerance to stressors. And in respect of certain of these factors, stress susceptibility is not fixed, so each person's stress tolerance level changes over time:

  • Childhood experience (abuse can increase stress susceptibility). Abusive behavior toward children may cause long-term abnormalities in the hypothalamus-pituitary system, which regulates stress.
  • Personality traits, emotional instability. Certain people have personality traits that cause them to over-respond to stressful events. Angry personalities (people who are less emotionally stable or have high anxiety levels) tend to experience specific events as more stressful than others.
  • Genetics (particularly inherited 'relaxation response', connected with serotonin levels, the brain's 'well-being chemical'). Some people have genetic factors that affect stress, such as having more or less efficient relaxation response.
  • Immunity abnormality. Certain diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or eczema may actual impair a response to stress.

Individuals at higher risk for stress:

  • Older adults. As people age, the ability to achieve a relaxation response after a stressful event becomes more difficult. Aging may simply wear out the systems in the brain that respond to stress, so that they become inefficient. The elderly, too, are very often exposed to major stressors such as medical problems, the loss of a spouse and friends, a change in a living situation, and financial worries.
  • Women in general, and working mothers specifically. Working mothers, regardless of whether they are married or single, face higher stress levels and possibly adverse health effects, most likely because they bear a greater and more diffuse workload than men or other women. Such stress may also have a domino and harmful effect on their children.
  • Caregivers of family members. Studies show that caregivers of physically or mentally disabled family members are at risk for chronic stress. Caregiving among the health professionals is also a high risk factor for stress.
  • Divorced or widowed individuals. A number of studies indicate that unmarried people generally do not live as long as their married contemporaries.
  • Less educated individuals.
  • Anyone experiencing financial strain, particularly long-term unemployment.
  • Isolated individuals.
  • People who are targets of racial or sexual discrimination.
  • People without health insurance.
  • People who live in cities.


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