Common causes and defintion of stress
Understanding stress
Erwin van den Burg
Understanding stress
5 min

Stress: definition and common causes

5 min

What is stress exactly? And what are its common causes? Although many people say they experience stress, surprisingly few know what stress precisely is. However, to relieve stress, it is important to understand what stress is and what causes it.

Defining stress

Stress. It seems as if almost everybody is suffering from it at some point in their lives. It has been reported that about half of the Americans are dealing with moderate stress. For some people, stress is severe and can cause disease, sometimes even leading to death.

Stress is not a disease itself, as many of us seem to think, but rather a condition of the body. During stress, the body is in an alert state, ready to cope with problems that have arisen. These problems can for example be related to family issues, financial worries, or problems at work. These problems are known as “stressors”. By definition, stressors are factors that cause stress. Thus, the definition of stress is a condition of the body that enables somebody to deal with problems.

Common causes of stress

Stressors are different for everyone. What may be experienced as a stressor (a factor triggering stress) by one person may not be experienced as such by somebody else. For example, financial difficulty may be a stressor, but if somebody has an idea of increasing his or her revenue, then it may not. Or for another example: bullying at work may be a stressor, but if you don’t care about what colleagues are saying to you, then bullying may not be a stressor for you.

In the end, it all comes down to the question of whether a problem is really bothering you. If it is, then this problem is a stressor, which by definition brings your body in a condition of stress.

No matter what the stressor is, the body will respond with a series of reactions that together constitute the stress response, and bring about the condition of stress. These reactions include first of all changes in the nervous and hormonal systems, and are then rapidly followed by adaptations of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and of the arm and leg muscles. These changes serve to increase alertness, so that you can focus on the stressor by either actively dealing with it, avoiding it, or just wait until the stressor goes away by itself. The hormonal changes further serve to liberate energy in the form of glucose from the liver. In this way, the body provides the energy that is necessary to deal with the stressor. There is no time wasted by having to eat first. Increased breathing and heart rate ensures that sufficient blood and oxygen arrive at the muscles. This makes immediate action possible.

Immediate action is known as the body’s “fight-or-flight response”, that served our ancestors well during times of physical attack by predators or invading tribes. However, most of the stressors we have to deal with today are of psychosocial nature. This is leading to mental stress, for example caused by relational problems at home, or by an unreasonable superior at work. Nevertheless, the body still makes use of the stress reactions that were once used by our ancestors in nature.

Good stress

Stress has been labelled as something bad, because it can lead to disease. But ask yourself this: how bad can stress be if it helps to solve problems? Isn’t it wonderful that the body has a mechanism built-in to deal effectively with stressors? Shouldn’t stress be considered as something good?

Indeed, stress can be a good thing! Stress helps to cope effectively with a stressor and to solve problems. Usually, the stress system is efficient and shuts off after a short period of time. Imagine that you feel stressed when you have to talk for a large audience, or when you have to hand in an important report. Your heart starts to pound, your hands become sweaty, and you feel a knot in your stomach. That is perfectly OK, and all these stress reactions will disappear rather quickly. They were simply part of the body’s strategy to help you to get through a difficult situation.

Bad Stress

However, things can go wrong when the stress condition is maintained for too long, for example when you didn’t manage to solve a stressful problem. For instance, you may be in conflict with your boss, and there is no way to end it in good harmony. Then, negative feelings that you will have become a burden. You might feel worried, angry, frustrated, or scared. These are all signs of bad stress, the kind of stress you want to avoid as it can lead to disease.

Again, while stressors and stress are experienced differently by all of us, there are many common causes of stress that can have a negative impact on your well-being:

  • Too much pressure at work

  • Having too many things to do

  • Being bullied

  • Losing your job

  • Financial problems

  • Family problems

  • Divorce

  • School problems

Acute and long-term stress

Acute stress, which is the stressful state of the body when a problem arises, is usually associated with good stress. It gives you the energy and focus to solve the problem within a short period of time.

However, if the body stays in a stressful state for too long, stress can have damaging effects on your emotional, physical and mental health. This is considered bad stress, and is usually linked to chronic, or long-term, stress.

Because chronic stress is usually bad stress, it is important to be aware of the symptoms chronic stress brings about, so that you can take care of it.

Some physical symptoms of chronic stress are:

  • Headache

  • Sleep disorders

  • Problems with digestion

  • Reduced libido

  • High blood pressure

  • Muscle aches or tension

Emotional symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Anxiety

  • Lack of motivation

  • Irritability

  • Sadness or even depression

  • Negative mood

  • Feeling of not being able to finish things

  • Restlessness

These symptoms are brought about by neural and hormonal changes that occur during stress. For example, the stress hormone adrenaline (or epinephrine) causes irritability, its sister hormone noradrenaline helps to bring the brain in a state of alert in the brain, and keeps you therefore awake at night.

You have to realize though, that these symptoms are not specific to chronic stress. If you have problems falling asleep, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in a chronic stress condition. As a rule of thumb, the more of the symptoms you have, the more likely it is that chronic stress is the underlying cause. However, it is necessary to consult your primary care doctor or a specialist to determine whether you are experiencing chronic stress or not.

Stress accumulation

At times it may seem that stressors are just piling up, and that you cannot longer cope adequately with stress. Again, if this is the case for you, we encourage you to go through the Stressinsight website, or join our course Surmounting Stress, and if necessary to seek professional help. Our articles, course and specialists in your neighborhood may help to determine whether you are experiencing chronic stress, or suffering from an anxiety disorder for example.

Stress accumulation and stress overload lead to several symptoms, but which are by themselves not necessarily specific to stress overload. Many of those are related to anxiety disorders. This may not be surprising, as some experts consider anxiety as a mental stress. However, chronic stress and anxiety disorders are not the same thing. Chronic stress is an undesired condition of the body, which is usually induced by external factors and can lead to disease. Anxiety disorders are usually related to inner problems and are by themselves (neurological) disorders.

Symptoms of stress overload include:

  • Panic attacks

  • Constant worrying

  • Social withdrawal

  • Feeling of being under constant pressure

  • Burn-out

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • Drug consumption

  • Binge eating

  • Smoking

  • Depression

As mentioned before, if you recognize some of these symptoms, and when you feel you cannot cope with every-day problems anymore, you have to contact your doctor. The information we provide here will help you to understand your situation better, and may even be sufficient to make you deal with your stress successfully. However, Stressinsight is not a substitute for a medical doctor. So when you feel you need to consult a specialist in your area, please do so.

In general, it is best to avoid excessive stress and stress accumulation. If you have good insight into what stress precisely is and what causes stress in your professional or private life (the stressors), it becomes easier to deal with. Specialists can help you by providing you with additional resources and tools to manage and relieve your stress.

With this article, you have started to integrate your knowledge of what stress is with some of its common causes. This will be worked out in depth in other articles on our website and in our course Surmounting Stress.