First of all, let’s understand this. Stress is not the pile of papers sitting on your desk. Stress is not the child screaming in the living room, or the clean laundry the dog just dragged out the door. Stress is not the phone that is ringing off the hook, throwing you behind schedule.
Stress is your response to those things. They are stressors, not stress.
A Stressor May or May Not Be a Cause of Stress
When we look for signs and symptoms, causes of stress, we must look at every stressor as a potential cause of stress. I say “potential” because stressors do not have to cause stress. Different people will respond differently to them, and it is the response, you remember, that is the stress.
For example, a great cause of stress for one secretary may be a stack of documents waiting to be filed. She hates filing because she has no system. She is never sure where to file a given paper, so she puts off all filing. The stack grows, her anxiety grows, her guilt grows, but a lack of expertise paralyzes her. Finally, she becomes ill, and takes a day off work. The substitute secretary takes one look at the stack of documents and sets to work cheerfully. She has developed a filing system, and is confident of where she should put the papers. She soon has everything cleared away, and rewards herself with a quick 5-minute walk.
The stressor was the pile of documents to be filed. It was the same for both secretaries. One secretary responded with anxiety and guilt, resulting in physical sickness. The other responded with cheerful confidence, resulting in successful completion. The stressor was not an absolute cause of stress.
Everyday Causes of Stress
Everyday causes of stress are recurrent. They keep coming up. Here are a few examples.
1. The boss that never has a pleasant word for you can be a cause of stress if you let him. It depends on whether you let him bother you, or whether you decide to take it in stride.
2. The child that daily refuses to get up in time for school can be an everyday cause of stress for the parent that does not take control of the situation.
3. A family member that is always on the phone will become a cause of stress if you want to use the phone, and have no control over the situation.
4. Your neighbor’s barking dog, or even a singing bird on the windowsill is a potential cause of stress, depending on how you respond.
5. The spot on your clothing from food dropped during lunch might be a cause of stress when you go back to work – or you might have the emotional resilience to ignore it.
Our days are filled with signs and symptoms, causes of stress to which we will choose either to respond or not to respond.
Occasional Causes of Stress
In addition to potentially hundreds of everyday causes of stress, each of us faces occasional things that may become causes of stress. They may seem bigger, and more difficult to handle.
Each of these three could become a cause of stress.
1. You are relocating. You have to sort, pack, and clean. Then you have to move to a new location. You leave behind your friends and acquaintances. You leave your former life in many ways. Relocation can be a major cause of stress, or you can prepare ahead of time to deal with the emotional changes.
2. Your job is being redefined. There is new, more difficult work to do, and little time to do it. This potential cause of stress could make you physically ill unless you organize the work and take control.
3. Family finances are suddenly cut when you or your spouse loses a job. Might this be a cause of stress? It depends on whether you immediately take action to seek new employment, and use your spare time to catch up on little chores around the house.
Each potential cause of stress can overwhelm an individual, or energize them to take on the challenge and turn things around.
Life-Changing Causes of Stress
A stressor in this category is much more likely to become a cause of stress, since such changes shake our very roots. Look at these examples, and see if there is a cause of stress you are trying to handle.
1. Serious illness or injury of a family member can quickly become a cause of stress. We find it difficult to respond appropriately to this kind of stressor. Emotionally and mentally, we lack the resilience we need.
2. Separation from a spouse due to martial difficulties, or even due to your job, can also become a cause of stress. Emotional tension may overcome you as your body responds to the parting.
3. Divorce is a too-common cause of stress, and one that is difficult to handle with an appropriate response.
4. A major loss of income will be a cause of stress to those who rely too much on finances. Credit difficulties falls into the same group.
5. Finally, the death of a child or spouse is a stressor that almost always will become a cause of stress.
The Underlying Cause of Stress
The ultimate underlying cause of stress is our inner response to losing control of our lives. It is natural for humans to want to control life at every turn. We want to be the masters of our own ships, and be able to determine what will happen to us. Stressors threaten that control, and we respond by preparing to fight whatever is stealing the control we want – or flee from it. Stress is the “fight-or-flight” response of our bodies.
If all the signs and symptoms, all of the causes of stress were lumped together and labeled with a single phrase, that phrase would be “response to the loss of control”.