To put it simply, stress is the body’s natural and automatic response to feeling threatened, overwhelmed, or under pressure. It causes the brain to release a hormone known as cortisol – often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ and also causes adrenaline levels to spike. This is often described as a ‘flight or fright’ response, and it is your body’s way to protect itself from perceived dangers. However, the rapid fluctuation of hormones can have varying effects on both your mind and body.
Various studies suggest that low levels of stress can be beneficial, as they encourage you to come up with practical resolutions to the problems you are facing and can improve your performance accordingly. This is perhaps why so many people claim to thrive under pressure on job applications. However, prolonged stress can lead to emotional, behavioral, and physical complications – many of which could have serious consequences.
Despite common misbelief, stress does not need to become a part of your daily schedule – as there are plenty of steps that can be taken to avoid it completely or at least minimize its impact. So, what are the five causes of stress?
What are the five causes of stress?
Stress can be invoked by both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) stimuli. However, the most common causes of stress (stressors) tend to be:
- Feeling out of control. When a person feels in control of what is happening around them, they often feel more relaxed and comfortable. For example, it is important to feel in control at work as it allows people to feel as though they are more likely to achieve their desired outcome. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that a lack of control can induce feelings of stress and anxiety – as it removes the sense of certainty that they crave.
- Worrying about finances. According to a recent study by FP Canada, ‘money is the number one cause of stress for four-in-ten Canadians’ – a figure that is set to rise as the world begins to deal with the financial after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many different situations could lead to finance-related stress. For example, this could include job loss, debt and loan repayments, lack of savings, medical bills, or even reckless spending.
- Being overwhelmed and overworked. Being overwhelmed and overworked – whether this relates to a person’s job or academic pursuits is another common cause of stress. While employees are often encouraged to thrive under pressure, workplace stress is the product of poor organization and time management, a lack of support, or simply a workload that exceeds the limitations of the employee. While a little workplace stress is unavoidable, 45% of Canadians attribute their increased stress levels to their work (IPSOS). Furthermore, many students report feeling stressed due to both their ever-increasing workload, the general cost of studying, or even the simple fact that they feel pressure to succeed.
- Relationship struggles or breakdowns. Sometimes, the cause of stress can be entirely emotional. For example, it may be the response to a relationship breakdown – whether that be romantic (between sexual partners) or platonic (between friends). When a relationship ends, it leads to uncertainty and rapid change – both of which could be considered significant stressors. However, it is also important to remember that relationships can be a cause of stress even if they are not ending. For example, frequent disagreements over a prolonged period of time can lead to excessive stress levels.
- Poor health. Poor health is yet another common cause of stress, especially in the current climate. For example, many people across the world are worried about not only contracting (or spreading) COVID-19 – but the long-lasting effects this could have on their lives moving forward. According to a recent survey, 56% of Canadians reported feeling increased levels of stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, ill health or the ill health of friends, family, and loved ones has always been a prominent cause of stress. This, again, is likely because certain elements of our health are simply beyond our control.
What are the symptoms of stress and anxiety?
Stress can manifest in different ways – depending upon the individual in question or the exact cause of their stress. The symptoms can typically be broken down into three separate sections.
- Emotional symptoms of stress
- Behavioral symptoms of stress
- Physical effects of stress
Emotional Symptoms of Stress.
Emotional responses to stress will vary depending upon the individual dealing with the issue – as it can manifest itself in many different and sometimes unexpected ways. However, common emotional symptoms of stress include:
- A feeling of hopelessness
- Sadness or depression
- Low-self esteem
Behavioral Symptoms of Stress.
Behavioral symptoms of stress refer to changes in a person’s behavior as a direct consequence of their stress levels. Typically, these symptoms may be noticed by others before the person dealing with them realizes that something is wrong. For example, this could include:
- A loss of appetite
- An inability to focus
- A lack of drive
- Poor decision-making & recklessness
- Purposeful distancing from friends/family
- Acting out of frustration/anger
- Slipping into bad habits, such as increased alcohol consumption
Physical effects of stress.
The physical effects of stress refer to how stress impacts your body and overall health. Typically, prolonged stress can lead to the following physical changes:
- Increased fatigue
- Disrupted sleep and insomnia
- Weakened immune system
- Body & muscle tension
- Increased anxiety
- Increased heart rate & blood pressure
- Heartburn & the increased risk of dealing with major complications such as a heart attack
- Breathlessness or chest pain
- High blood sugar
- Stomach ache
- Hormonal imbalances
How to cope with stress.
Thankfully, while stress may occasionally be avoidable, there are many practical steps that a person dealing with prolonged stress can take to reduce its impact on their health and happiness. For example, this could include.
- Finding the cause. Sometimes, it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is leading to feelings of stress, especially if it is triggered by complex emotions. However, knowing what causes stress is the first step towards resolution – as it enables the sufferer to take practical steps to avoid this situation in the future, or at least temporarily distance themselves from it. Typically, stress can be attributed to one of the factors listed above – but it’s important to remember that stress can be caused by multiple different issues at the same time – all of which need to be addressed to achieve a full recovery.
- Taking a break. Taking a break is another great way to reduce stress and anxiety. This is because it enables a person to prioritize their mental and physical health, as opposed to attempting to be resilient and push through their stress no matter the consequences. Furthermore, having some time away from whatever may be causing the stress often encourages a person to find a practical solution to their issues. Taking a break might mean something different to each person – but could include taking time off work or setting aside some time each day to dedicate entirely to self-care, rest, and relaxation.
- Attending counselling sessions. Sometimes, it is impossible to resolve stress or deal with the symptoms associated with it alone. This can lead to a person feeling incredibly isolated and confused or unsure of what they can do next in order to help themselves. In these cases, it is important that everyone utilizes the resources that are available to them – such as counseling services. Counseling sessions and the associated treatments allow people dealing with excessive stress to find an outlet for their struggles – and take the necessary steps towards recovery. Furthermore, all sessions are entirely confidential, which often gives people the confidence to talk freely about how they are feeling without there being any consequences as a result.
- Adapting to a healthier lifestyle. Following a healthy lifestyle is often attributed to reduced levels of stress and anxiety. This is due to the simple fact that it means a person is taking better care of their body, and ensuring that it has everything it needs to thrive. Furthermore, it can help to mitigate some of the negative side-effects that have been induced by stress. For example, if a person dealing with stress has high blood pressure, a healthy diet can help reduce blood pressure to a healthy level. Furthermore, healthy lifestyles are often associated with the reduced consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes – all of which can heighten stress levels if they are not consumed within moderation.
- Spending time outdoors. Spending more time outdoors is often considered to be one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and related conditions, such as anxiety and depression. This is because spending time outdoors can increase the body’s production of serotonin – which in turn, helps people feel happier and more relaxed. Furthermore, getting outdoors is a great way to remove yourself from a stressful situation – which could help you clear your mind and work towards a quicker solution to whatever problems you may be facing.
- Exercising. Regular exercise (for around 45 minutes a day) is a great way to fight stress because it can reduce the levels of stress hormones (such as cortisone) in the body. Furthermore, exercise is a great way to increase your energy and focus levels – something which stress would actively reduce if left untreated. Exercise does not always have to mean signing up to a sweat-inducing HIIT class – it could simply include going for a walk around the block. Furthermore, yoga and mediation are great workouts for both the mind and body, making them an incredibly effective stress-reduction method that many could benefit from.
- Getting more sleep. Getting enough sleep can also help reduce stress because it gives the body the time it needs to heal and recover. For example, feeling well-rested can help improve a person’s cognitive function and ability to resolve their problems. Ideally, adults should aim for around 7 hours of sleep each night.
- Reducing caffeine consumption. Many adults feel as though they cannot start their day without a cup of coffee in their hands. However, caffeine consumption also causes the body to produce increased levels of cortisol. While this could provide people with the energy they need to get through the day; it also increases their likelihood of feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
- Journaling. Journaling refers to writing down your thoughts, feelings, and emotions as opposed to bottling them up. While this may not appear to be immediately effective, it gives people the insight they need to make changes in their lives or process how they are feeling. This often works well in conjunction with counseling or as a coping technique for a range of emotional issues or struggles.
- Spending time with friends. Being around friends and loved ones or dedicating some time to pursuing hobbies and interests is another great way to reduce stress. For example, if a person discusses their stress with their friends, they are less likely to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Furthermore, spending time with loved ones also causes your body to produce increased levels of serotonin – which is often associated with feeling happy and relaxed.
In short, while there are many different causes of stress – from financial insecurities to workplace struggles – each and every person must put plans in place that allow them to combat stress effectively. A counselor or therapist will usually be able to suggest which method of stress reduction will suit their client’s lifestyle and needs – or may suggest a combination of reduction methods that will help them feel more like themselves again. Putting together an effective stress reduction plan will ensure that stress does not disrupt your health and happiness or stand in the way of your daily life and long-term aspirations. While this does not mean stress can be eliminated entirely, in the majority of cases, it can be reduced and avoided.