Everyone encounters stressful situations on an almost daily basis, from minor pressures that we hardly notice, to occasional traumatic situations which can cause ongoing stress. Many of us do not realise that some forms of stress, known as eustress, can have a positive effect on our performance, and instead refer to those experiences which cause us negative distress as stressful.
In recent decades, stress, its causes and our bodily response to stress have been the subject of numerous psychological studies. Today, stressful events tend to fall into one of three key categories:
- Acute - Short-term events which do not last long but if traumatic, can have a lasting impact on us.
- Episodic Stress - Situations which are also short-term but which we find ourselves in regularly, such as rushing to work or other recurring stressful experiences in the workplace.
- Chronic - Ongoing stresses which last into the long-term. These may include the stress of illness or the friction of a fractious relationship.
What are some common examples of these stressors, and what techniques can people use to avoid them or reduce the stress that they cause?
We spend much of waking lives at work, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the workplace is a key source of stress. A survey published by the American Psychological Association in 2012 found that as many as 70% of Americans reported suffering from workplace stress.1
Professional strain can take its toll on the individual concerned, but can also cost employers dearly, with 13.5 million sick days estimated to have been linked to stress between 2007 and 2008 in the UK alone.2
Separating work-related tasks from leisure and family time, such as resisting the urge to catch up with emails in an evening, can help prevent workplace stress from spilling into other areas of your life.
Do you worry about spots, wrinkles, weight or balding? If you do, you are in good company. Concerns over our personal appearance can have an exaggerated effect on people’s confidence and their self image.
Take weight worries, for example. Whilst researching the sources of everyday stress, psychologist Allen Kanner and his colleagues developed Hassles and Uplifts Scales, ranking stressors in terms of their impact on people’s lives. Of those surveyed, more than half admitted to worrying about their weight, placing it at the top of Kanner’s Hassles Scale (Kanner et al, 1981).3
A study published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology reported that undertaking activities such as exercise can help boost self esteem in a study of middle-aged participants (Alfermann and Stoll, 2000).4
The pressure to conform and be seen to succeed in everyday life can encourage stress, and the aspiration towards ideals and success nurtured in the media can be unrealistic and unhelpful. Ideas of a desirable body image, for example, have been linked to both negative self images and eating disorders.
The stress created by our environment can also have lasting consequences. Iian Meyer of the UCLA School of Law noted the effect that social pressures can have on health. Studying the stress experienced by social minority groups who are commonly subjected to various forms of prejudice, such as being excluded by the wider community, bullied or encouraged to internalise discrimination, Meyer developed the concept of “minority stress”, the experience of which can in turn lead to mental health problems (Meyer, 2007).5
Despite the health-related drawbacks of experiencing stress, it can also impact our performance in more positive ways. The pressure we feel to meet a deadline, accomplish a goal or meet the demands of a schedule, for example, can motivate us to improve our performance. In contrast to the distress that we usually refer to as ‘stress’, this type of stress is known as eustress.
In competitive sports, eustress can encourage athletes to focus on training for a match and to commit to practise when they would rather do other things, but we all experience it to some degree in the form of pressures in everyday life, such as the need to pass exams at school.
Fears over one’s own health or the wellbeing of a relative or friend are a common cause of stress.
The experience of an illness, and the loss of control over events, can lead to persistent worry about both the current and possible future situations. Paradoxically, the stress caused by health worries can itself lead to problems and the body’s reaction to stress, General Adaptation Syndrome, can have physical effects as we deplete our energy reserves to cope with a stressful situation.
When moving homes, people will often tell you that moving home is one of the most stressful events you will experience in your life. More generally, any situation which requires change, positive or negative, requires us to adapt to new circumstances and can be a source of stress. Such events can include leaving home, commencing a new job and starting a family.
Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe produced an inventory of life-changing events known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) which, surprisingly, ranks the act of moving home as the 28th most stressful life change. Far more severe are changed in relationships, such as a partner’s death or separation (Holmes and Rahe, 1967).6
Even outside of a recession, financial worries can affect us all and lead to unnecessary stress which can be a burden to yourself and those close to you.
Loans, ever-increasing bills, the ability to pay off credit cards, being able to live comfortably and retire when we wish all contribute to a sense of financial insecurity.
Kanner’s Hassles Scale found that a feeling of not being able to pay bills and live comfortably, as well as the burden of supporting others financially to be a key strain in our everyday lives (Kanner et al, 1981).3
Whilst improved management of money can alleviate financial stress, the unique situation of each individual makes a one-size-fits-all solution to this source of stress impossible. Left unaddressed, however, financial worries can have a significant effect on our lives and can impact on relations with close friends and family.
Even the happiest of relationships can be a source of stress for both parties involved. Cohabiting can bring a host of problems, from the loss of a personal ‘breathing space’ to having to adapt to the different habits of a partner. Over time, these demands can impact on relationships and lead to stressful arguments, leading to a vicious circle which can lead to break-ups. Yet, the Hassles and Uplifts Scales (Kanner et al, 1981) rates good relations with partners and friends as the two most significant factors which can help to improve our wellbeing and counteract life’s stresses.3
Whilst compromise is needed on both sides for a relationship to endure, it is a practise which might not always lead to a reduction in stress for those involved and can even become the focus of arguments. A study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy has, however, identified “mindfulness” as a factor in reducing relationship stress (Barnes et al, 2007). This practise requires an awareness of the feelings of the other partner and an understanding of the impact one’s own actions might have on those around us.7
Understandably, the loss of a loved one can be one of the most painful experiences a person can endure. The shock or enduring worry of losing a friend or relative can lead to stress, especially when the person we lose is a relative or close friend.
Events during and shortly after loss, such as end-of-life care and funeral arrangements contribute to stress and it can take a long time to adjust to not being able to meet or speak to the person, and acceptance of the new circumstance is difficult.
Past events can be a key source of stress. Whilst any danger a person has experienced may have passed, the stress of the trauma can continue to affect them for many years afterwards. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that around 50% of women experience a traumatic event at least once in their life, and are more prone to be victims of sexual violence than men. However, 60% of men also experience trauma, a difference which it attributes to males being more likely to be involved in accidents.8
Persistent stress which lasts long after a traumatic event has passed is often identified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition which the NHS estimates to affect a third of people who experience trauma.9