Causes of Stress

Simply put, stress has one cause- our perceptions of and reactions to the situations that occur in our lives. Stress can be caused by something as simple as breaking a fingernail or by something as serious as losing a finger. In addition, the positive events in our lives can be as stressful as the negative ones.

For example, the birth of a child can be stressful both in positive and negative ways.

“It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It has all of its fingers and toes! It’s healthy! It’s wonderful!”

First of all, adrenaline flows and we beam with pride as our hearts fill with jubilation and overwhelming emotion! However, often anxiety follows.

“Will I be a good parent? Can I provide for my newborn? Will I wake up at 2:00 a.m. when he begins to cry?”

In the above example, the first reaction is called eustress, or positive stress. The second is the all too familiar distress, or negative stress. While coping with eustress is easier than dealing with distress, the truth is that whether positive or negative, stress is stress!

Moreover, what may be a stress reliever to one person may be a stressor to another. For instance, a divorce may be relief for one party and a calamity for the other or an employment lay-off may give one individual a much-needed vacation while spelling only financial disaster for another.

While anything that causes stress is called a stressor, generally the stress we worry about most is distress. This negative stress can be caused by either processive stressors or systemic stressors.

Processive stressors are those that elicit what is called the “fight or flight” reaction. When we believe we are in danger, the pituitary gland automatically sounds an alarm by releasing a burst of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn signals the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are actually a safeguard that help us focus on the situation at hand, speed up reaction times, and temporarily boost our physical strength and agility while we decide whether to retreat or stand firm.

Systemic stressors are our bodies’ automatic physiological responses to stress, such as the loss of equilibrium (dizziness) that you feel before you faint or the release of acid that turns and churns your stomach during a stressful situation. Systemic stressors may be released simultaneously along with processive stressors and can cause even more stress as they create a greater sensation of danger to your well-being.

Although everyone suffers from stress at one time or another, research indicates that children who live in a stressful home environment are at greater risk to become stressed by life’s challenges. In addition, some research suggests that both the events that we find stressful and our ability to manage the stress caused by those events may be partly genetic, governed by the genes that control our endorphin levels. (Endorphins are the hormones that regulate our moods and also act as a natural “pain killer”).

Though events may seem stressful, it is important to remember that stress is created by our reactions to situations, rather than the events themselves. In reality, stress is “all in our heads”. Putting life’s ups and downs into proper perspective is the key to coping with stress and the effects that it has on both our health and our lives.

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