What is psychosocial stress?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free, one-on-one support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Stress is a natural human response to something that pressures or threatens us—or in situations that feel out of our control. It is felt in the body as tension and can have physical and mental health effects. In most cases, stress is meant to serve a positive purpose. It can motivate us to work harder when we need to pay the bills, go on a first date, or find something to do when we’re bored. On the other hand, when stress levels become excessive, it can do more harm than good. 

There are two commonly recognized types of stress; physiologic and psychosocial stress. Physiologic stress is stress caused by physical issues, such as an injury. Psychosocial stress, on the other hand, is caused by specific social situations. Understanding how psychosocial stress affects the body is important for staving off its potentially negative effects.

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Is psychological stress impacting your social life?

What is psychosocial stress?

Psychosocial stress is caused by situations that make us feel excluded, not good enough, or as if we don’t belong. Since humans have an innate need to feel a sense of belonging and connection to other people, this kind of stress can be detrimental to one’s mental and even physical health. Psychosocial stress can develop in relationships with family or friends, at work or school, after a difficult event like a foreclosure, and in many other situations as well. 

Psychosocial stress symptoms

Psychosocial stress is common, particularly in the workplace, and results when we are faced with a perceived social status threat. The keyword here is “perceived” because in some cases, the stress and anxiety can stem from one's own mind and not reality.

There are three particular situations in which psychosocial stress usually presents. They include:
  • Social evaluation (being or feeling judged by one's peers)
  • Social exclusion (being or feeling rejected by others)
  • Achievement/goal-oriented situations (having one's performance judged by others)

Regardless of the cause, imagined or not, psychosocial stress can cause physical symptoms. This might seem strange, but keep in mind that there is a strong body-mind connection and that what we feel, think, and believe on the inside can manifest itself in different ways outwardly, especially under social pressure.

Examples of psychosocial stress symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • An increase in blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and digestive problems
  • Strong emotional reactions such as sadness or irritability
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

These symptoms can be acute or chronic, meaning for some people they go away, and for others, they persist over a long period of time. 

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How psychosocial stress presents itself

To really understand how this type of stress affects us, it is important to also understand the body-mind connection, particularly if stress is chronic. Different social situations, such as receiving strange looks from one’s peers, can cause a stress response. This causes the body to release a group of stress hormones. These hormones, cortisol, dopamine, and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), when released, unleashed a strong burst of energy. Then, something called "fight-or-flight mode" is activated. 

Within seconds, someone can be sweating and have a heart that is racing. Since it can take up to an hour for the body to return to normal after one of these events, someone people are already physically nauseous by the time the hormones wear off.

Fight-or-flight isn't always a bad thing. In fact, it’s an evolutionary response that can be helpful and save our lives in certain situations. For example, if your house catches on fire and you need to escape, the rush of hormones during fight-or-flight could give you the boost of strength and energy you would need to move a heavy dresser blocking the window and climb down the fire escape to the first story.

Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies cannot tell the difference between real physical threats in our lives, like fire, from those in our minds (i.e., being judged by others). Continual release of these hormones can lead to long-term health effects such as an increased risk of heart attack or stroke and a lowered immune system. For this reason, it is important to reduce episodes of and manage psychosocial stress whenever possible.

Common scenarios

If you're an adult, the fear of being rejected by childhood peers has probably long passed. However, there are many stressors that can lead to psychosocial stress depending on where you are in life. The most common causes include:

For children:

  • Parental divorce/isolation
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Being bullied and/or rejected by peers

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

For adults:

  • Social relationships with friends and coworkers
  • Being evaluated at work
  • Public speaking

One common factor regardless of age is moving to a new place and the increased (and different) social situations that this can bring into our lives.

Coping with psychosocial stress

Since dealing with other people is a huge part of life, psychosocial factors cannot be avoided as well as other types of stress. Knowing this makes it even more important to stay proactive and build new coping mechanisms.

Positive reframing

Many ancient philosophies teach that it is not the exact situation that we deal with that determines an outcome, but how we react to it. In recent years, behavioral and psychological research has confirmed these philosophies. Two people can enter the same situation but see it from two completely different perspectives. Although you might not be able to control everything that happens to you, especially when other people are involved, you can control your reactions and behaviors.

When faced with a dilemma at school, work, or at home that causes psychosocial fears, try to reframe the event in your mind by putting a positive spin on it. Do not give negative thoughts power by allowing yourself to focus on them. For example, when everyone was looking at her in the hallway, Sarah assumed that they were judging her negatively because of her clothing. The next day at school, one of the girls from the hallway complimented Sarah on her outfit from the day before. What Sarah identified as a “weird look” wasn't meant negatively at all.

By reframing negative thoughts based on fear into a more positive light, stressful situations can be more effectively managed.

Maintain composure

Again, your reaction is key. If you can't reframe a situation in a positive light, try to keep yourself as physically composed as possible. For example, if you are having a problem with a gossiping coworker at work, fight-or-flight mode might cause you to feel angry. You might even consider confronting that person and giving them a piece of your mind.

Unfortunately, the decisions made when influenced by the three stress hormones are not always the best ones. Not reacting at that moment can allow you time to calm yourself and think of an appropriate response, rather than immediately engaging in any behavior that could potentially create more harm and stress.

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Is psychological stress impacting your social life?

Strengthen supportive relationships

Even if others are really judging you, excluding you, or otherwise mistreating you, it does not have to ruin your whole day, week, month, or year. When we are impacted by psychosocial stress, people often have the tendency to withdraw and isolate as a stress response. Although this is a normal reaction, it can actually make the effects worse.

It can be helpful to make it a habit to reach out to supportive family, friends, and coworkers on a regular basis. Knowing that you have people who love and accept you as you are in your corner can ease the stress of being rejected or judged by others. Remind yourself of your own self-worth and prioritize self-care as you adjust through stressful times. Try to make becoming a stronger, healthier, happier version of yourself a significant focus instead of only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation. Personal development can be a positive investment. 

Online therapy with BetterHelp

If there isn't anyone in your life who can help with socially stressful situations or you just would like some more focused help, consider reaching out to a professional who specializes in such issues. BetterHelp's online therapy program has alternative ways of receiving help and treatment, so you don't have to worry about any added social strain from going to an in-person office. Sessions can be conducted via video call, phone call, live voice recordings, or safe and in-app messaging from the comfort of your home or wherever you have an internet connection.

The efficacy of online therapy

The National Center for Health Research analyzed dozens of studies on the efficacy of online therapy for a variety of mental health issues and concerns. They found that online therapy is overall just as effective as in-person therapy for treating depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD, and more and that there is no difference in patient satisfaction between in-person and online therapy.

Takeaway

Stress is a normal part of life. Given that we humans are by nature social, community-oriented beings, it makes sense that psychosocial stress such as a concern that we are being somehow judged by peers can be particularly impactful to us. If allowed to be felt too regularly, psychosocial stress can lead to or contribute to a variety of health issues, such as heart disease, reduced immune response, loss of sleep, and more. However, if managed properly and reacted to healthily, psychosocial stress has the potential to serve us positively. If you need some help learning how to do this, online therapy can be a viable option.

Ease stress and mental exhaustion

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