The 4 Sources of Stress

Sources of stressStress, the reaction that mobilizes our resources against a potential danger (real or perceived), can be produced by an almost infinite variety of single triggers.  This variety is produced by the many different situations that can cause stress, in addition to the individual differences among individuals in their perceptions of these triggers.  It is not uncommon to see a threat where someone else may see an opportunity or a challenge, and vice versa.  For ease of understanding, stress triggers may be classified into four major sources, which in turn can be further combined into two categories.  The principal categories are: physical stressors and psychological stressors.

Physical stressors impinge upon the five senses and pertain to the domain of the tangible and concrete. These are stress triggers that we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste.  A car coming straight at us on the sidewalk is a real, tangible and imminent physical threat, which must and does trigger an immediate stress reaction.  We respond to this physical threat by stepping out of the way, instinctively and without giving it much thought.  Included in the physical stressors is pain, which is the body’s reaction to a noxious agent that attacks its structure.  Thus, illness, which frequently produces pain, is considered primarily as a physical stressor, rather than psychological.  However, and it’s a big caveat, it would be a mistake to consider illness a purely physical stressor, as illness (especially if accompanied by pain) has a way of affecting the mind by producing negative thinking, negative self-appraisal, hopelessness, mental fatigue and other effects on the person’s spirit, attitude and worldview.

Psychological stressors are the most complex and perhaps the most frequent type of stressors we encounter in our daily lives.  To understand psychological stressors it is important to remember that they can fall into two distinct categories: real or perceived. Real psychological stressors are produced by the perception of an emotional danger or threat, in other words by a concern over something that is based on reality and does or may objectively occur. An example of this may be an impending relationship breakup.  Perceived psychological stressors are produced by the same mechanism, and are a concern over events or situations that are often based on reality but may be exaggerated or may in fact never occur. An example of the latter may be a worry or concern over an unnamed threat that may keep us from being able to take an elevator, or ride in an aircraft.

To summarize, the four principal sources of stress may be grouped as follows:

  1. Environmental
    • Includes physical stressors that impinge upon the five senses, such as weather, traffic, noise, pollution, disturbing images.
  2. Social
    • Includes psychological stressors triggered when demands are made on our time, attention and skills, such as in job interviews, public speaking, work presentations, interpersonal conflict, competing priorities, financial problems, and loss of relationships and loved ones.
  3. Physiological
    • Includes physical stressors that are produced at various stages in our life, such as during growth spurts in adolescence, menopause, lack of exercise, poor nutrition  insufficient sleep, illness, injuries, and aging.
    • Included in this category is also the physical stress produced by psychological stressors, which produce muscle tension, headaches, stomach upsets, anxiety attacks, and bouts of depression.
  4. Cognitive-emotional
    • The principal source of this type of stress is our own thoughts. Our brain interprets changes in our environment and body and conducts an automatic “threat assessment” to decide whether a danger is present and thus mobilize the body’s defenses.  The good functioning, or poor functioning of our threat assessment mechanism determines whether we become alarmed appropriately or inappropriately, and whether to remain stressed or relax.

In all cases, the stress reaction and the response that follows begins with our ability to correctly assess the situation and to estimate danger. Stress researchers Lazarus and Folkman (1984) were the first to point out that stress begins with our appraisal of a situation. Instinctively, we first ask ourselves how dangerous or difficult a situation is and what resources we have at our disposal to cope with it.  Self-confident individuals are more likely to conclude that, although the situation may be serious, they have what it takes to face it.  Less confident individuals tend to conclude that the same situation requires resources that they either do not have or that they have in insufficient measure.

The stress response of fight, flight or freeze is directly correlated to our ability to interpret the danger correctly, and to select the best course of action that produces the wanted results.  In some case, we will be able to eliminate the stressor (turn the source of noise off), in others we may simply need to distance ourselves from the stressor (flight response), and in some other cases it will be appropriate to do nothing and let the situation resolve itself (the freeze response).  What we choose to do largely depends on our assessment of available resources: making the correct appraisal of what we are capable of can be the difference between the right response and the wrong one.