What Types Of Stressors Are There And How Can I Deal With Them?
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Heather Cashell
Stress is a part of everyday life; but if most of us had our way, it wouldn't even exist. We hear the word stress often. People say, 'I'm under so much stress!' or 'I'm stressed-out right now!' Stress, though, isn't a big fog that overcomes us from out of nowhere. It's caused by the stressors we're dealing with, and we feel the effects in our minds, bodies, and performance. Learning more about stressors can help set you on the path to reducing your exposure or negative reactions to them.
How Can I Define Stressors?
The word 'stressors' and the word 'stress' are different forms of the same word, but they do have different meanings. Stress is a bodily reaction, but stressors are what create that reaction.
What Are Stressors?
Stressors are the triggers behind the stress we face every day. They're things we're exposed to or things that come from within us. Although we react to stressors, stressors aren't the reaction itself. They are merely the signs that tell our minds and our bodies that something is happening that will require us to do something hard.
What about a more compact stressors definition? The Collins American Dictionary gives a definition found in Webster's New World College Dictionary, which defines stressor this way:
'Any stimulus producing mental or physical stress in an organism.'
Notice that we define stressors as stimuli. They are something that causes a stress reaction, but they aren't the stress itself. This is an important fact to keep in mind when you're dealing with stress. That's because separating the stress from the stressor can help you understand what to do about it.
How We Respond To Stressors
Stressors are so named because they cause a stress reaction. In other words, if something didn't cause you stress, it wouldn't be a stressor for you. So, what is this stress response like? It can be both a physical and mental response.
How The Body Responds To Stress
When the stressor appears, it triggers the nervous system, which sends out a 'flight or flight' warning to the rest of the body. The body then shifts into focusing on the threatening situation or event. The nervous system sends several signals to the body. As you read what these signals do, consider this question: Which of the following systems are responsible for your body's physical response to stressors?
- The nervous system is triggered when the senses pick up information that indicates you're in a threatening situation and relay that information to the brain. The amygdala deep in the brain sends its warning to the hypothalamus, which can be thought of as the command center for the stress reaction.
- To the adrenal glands: this triggers the release of cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. Your heart rate and respiration speed up. Blood vessels dilate in your arms and legs. The digestive system starts increasing blood sugar levels.
- To the musculoskeletal system: this causes your muscles to become tense and taut.
- To the cardiovascular system: in addition to speeding up your heart rate, this also causes your heart to pump more blood through your large blood vessels and heart.
- To the endocrine system: here, the hypothalamus signals the production of the stress hormones, which gives you energy and sets your digestive system to get to work producing glucose in your liver.
- To the gastrointestinal system: this can cause you to eat more or eat different foods. Butterflies in your stomach start, because your brain is in a state of heightened awareness, picking up the slightest sensations in your stomach. You may also have diarrhea or constipation because of the changed rate of digestion.
- To the reproductive system: In men, this means a rush of testosterone and possibly heightened arousal. In women, PMS may include flair, menstruation may stop or become irregular, and arousal may decrease.
So, which of these systems are responsible for your body's physical response to stress? The nervous system kicks it all off, but all of these systems play a part.
How The Mind Responds To Stress
The effects of being in that fight-or-flight mode may be mental as well. The short-term mental effects may be a heightened sense of awareness and focus. However, the stress may also show up in more negative ways, such as:
- Feeling anxious or fearful
- Feeling frustrated
- Feeling angry
- Feeling helpless
- Having trouble dealing with everyday tasks
- Having mood changes
- Being irritable
- Feeling impatient
- Feeling restless
- Feeling rejected
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling confused
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Having poor work performance
- Loss of sense of humor
- Trouble concentrating
- Showing poor judgment
- Developing irrational fears and phobias
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs
If the stressors don't go away and you don't learn to reduce your stress response, the long-term effects on your mental health can be extremely serious.
Does Everyone Respond the Same to the Same Stimuli?
The types of stressors that set you into fight-or-flight may be common, such as being in a car wreck or being a victim of a crime. The stimuli that trigger the stress response also can be highly individualized. For example, if an abusive parent hit you with a broom when you misbehaved, the sight of the broom might trigger the response, while for most people, it would mean nothing more than a reminder of work to be done.
Types Of Stressors
What are these stressors that trigger such an overwhelming cascade of reactions in your body and mind? Read of this list of the types of stressors and some of the examples of stressors below to understand better. Then, create a list of stressors that you deal with in your life.
Biological Stressors vs. Psychological Stressors
Biological stressors are those that you notice in your body first. They include the full range of illnesses and injuries. For example, have you ever noticed that you're more irritable when you're in pain? When that happens, the pain in your body is causing a stress response. Biological stressors can be subtler, too. If your body is fighting off an infection, your physical and mental processes can be affected.
Psychological stressors are those that come from your mind. One example is when a past psychological trauma comes back to you when you're exposed to sensory clues that remind you of it. The physical threat is over at that point. Now, the threat comes from your memory of the event or situation.
Psychological stressors can also include pressure situations such as meeting a deadline or taking a test. There is no biological threat here; you're stressed because of whatever meaning you ascribe to being late with the assignment or failing the test. Others may make it clear that you will suffer if you fail to meet their expectations. Fearing they're right, you put psychological pressure on yourself to meet their expectations.
Acute Stressors vs. Chronic Stressors
Acute stressors may show up suddenly and be gone in a very short time. These short-term stressors place an enormous strain on your mind and body. In fact, an acute stressor can trigger anything from a heart attack to a mental breakdown. However, because they are gone again so quickly, acute stressors don't have the gradual wearing effect on the body and mind that long-term stressors cause.
Chronic stressors are the ones that persist over a longer period of time. You may be under constant pressure for months or even years, with your body and mind in a constant state of readiness. These chronic stressors usually occur in high-risk jobs, abusive relationships, and other long-term situations in which you always feel you have to be on your guard. Eventually, chronic stressors can take a toll on every system in your body. Your mind may come to interpret all the information coming from your senses in terms of how it will impact you in this long-term situation, causing your mental health to suffer as well.
Positive Stressors vs. Negative Stressors
Can there really be a positive stressor? Hans Selye wrote about the stress reaction in 1936. By the 1970s, he was writing about what he termed 'eustress.' Eustress, or good stress, is the stress we feel that pushes us to do more, experience more, and achieve more. Positive stressors have the same biological effects as the negative stressors we're more familiar with, but we might interpret them differently. The main thing to remember about eustress is that it helps your body and mind be at its best when you need them most. If you interpret the stressor as positive, your biological response won't cause you any distress. As Selye eloquently put it, 'stress is not what happens to you, but how you react to it.'
Environmental Stressors vs. Internal Stressors
Environmental stressors are the stressors you experience from the world around you and take in via your five senses. Psychologists use the term 'environmental stressors' when referring to stimuli that are coming to you from outside yourself. Cold weather, loud noises, darkness, and colors are examples of stressors termed environmental.
Internal stressors come from within you. They can include thoughts and emotions that you experience within yourself that aren't inherently present in your environment. Examples of stressors such as these include the pressure you put on yourself to perform perfectly, feelings of inadequacy and behaviors that you feel you can't control. College students stressors are often based on these internal thoughts and emotions that cause them to stay in alert mode constantly. While these are certainly college student stressors, they can also be teacher stressors, too, because of the high expectations and demands on them in the educational system.
Walter Cannon, born in 1871, was a medical doctor and scientist who studied the physiology of emotions. Cannon was the one who coined the term homeostasis, which refers to the tendency of the body strive toward equilibrium. When you feel stress, it is because something indicates to you that your equilibrium is about to be disrupted. As he studied these subjects, Walter Cannon observed that a variety of stressors trigger psychosocial stressors.
Psychosocial is a term psychologist, and sociologists use to refer to the way social factors, thoughts, and behaviors interrelate. Psychosocial stressors include relationship stressors and other social stressors. People who have social anxiety are suffering from a condition in which their anxious thoughts and behaviors are affected by and affect their social interactions, for example.
Nearly everyone has experienced relationship stressors. After all, for as long as we live, most of us are engaged in some of the many forms of human relationships. It may be a parent-child relationship, a marriage, a sibling relationship, or other family relationships. We also have social relationships with friends, co-workers, or even the server in our favorite restaurant. So, it isn't surprising that some of these relationships can present us with stressors.
We may feel that our relationship is being threatened from within the relationship by the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we show each other. Or, the threat may come from outside the relationship, as someone else or some natural force seems to be disrupting the stability of the relationship.
How To Deal With Stressors
So, we have all these different types of stressors in our lives, and many of them are unavoidable. What can we do to relieve the stress on our bodies and minds? We can approach the problem of excessive stress in three different ways: Self-help, self-care, and help from a counselor.
You can read self-help books to learn more about how to deal with your stressors on your own. This can be a helpful starting point. However, what you usually get from reading is an intellectual understanding of the subject. You may not be able to integrate that knowledge into your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without help.
Self-care is what you do to take care of yourself. That means eating the right amount of healthy foods, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. You also need to get some positive social interaction, which many people find in their religious community or in clubs. Remember to take some time for yourself each day, to relax and enjoy yourself.
Getting Help from a Counselor
You can benefit from talking to a counselor if your stress is causing you emotional and physical problems. Just telling someone what you're going through can be a tremendous relief. Yet, it probably won't keep the stress response from coming back. For that, you may need to have several sessions to address the issues behind the stressors.
The first step in therapy for stress is typical to identify what the stressors are and make a plan for dealing with them. Your counselor can teach you techniques to make this process easier. A short-term plan might include learning problem-focused coping skills. These skills help you resolve or change the source of the stress. Addressing stressors with problem-focused coping would be most characteristic of those with acute stressors. Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, is a way of reducing the emotional impact of stressors we can't get rid of or change.
Your counselor can work with you during sessions until you become adept at reducing your stress level on your own. Licensed counselors are available at BetterHelp.com to talk to you anywhere you have an internet connection. You'll likely feel more in control after you explore the sources of your stress and your physical and emotional reactions to it. When you learn how to deal with the stress, your life can improve dramatically.