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Stress Management for Health Course

Causes of Stress

"Situations, circumstances or any stimulus that is perceived to be a threat is referred to as a stressor, or that which causes or promotes stress."

(Brian Luke Seaward)

The causes of stress are known as stressors and there are literally hundreds of different types of stressors.  Any event in life that a person finds threatening, difficult to cope with or causes excess pressure can be a potential cause of stress.  It is important to bear in mind that stress is an individualistic, subjective experience and therefore what one person finds stressful another may not.  Stressors can be broken down roughly into either external or internal (or a mixture of both.)


1. External Stressors

a) Major Life Events

Research by Psychiatrists Drs Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe revealed a list of common causes of stress that most people would find stressful.  They called this scale the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale.  The scale is a list of 45 stressors each given a number of points, with the most stressful at the top of the list (death of a spouse) and the least stressful at the bottom of the scale (a minor violation of the law).  The research indicates that if your total score is more than 150 points the chances are that it could have an impact on your health.  A score of over three hundred points in one year indicates that you have a high risk of developing a stress related health problem.

One of the weaknesses of the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment scale is that it doesnt take into account the individuals personality, their perception of how difficult the stressor is, nor does it take into account how long the stressor continues for; the scale just gives a single number for each stressor.  However, it s known that the longer a stressor continues, then the more likely it is to cause stress and that the individuals perception of an event is the key to whether they will find a situation stressful or not. 

For example, if a person is happy living in their house, theyve lived there for a number of years, have developed close friends in the area and do not want to move but are forced to move because their home is being repossessed, then they are going to find the event of moving infinitely far more stressful than a person who has lived in their home for a short time, next to a very noisy, difficult neighbour and who wants to move to get away from the noise. 

To help overcome some of the drawbacks of the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment scale Professor Cary Cooper, of The University Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), has upgraded it by allocating a scale of 1 - 10 points for each event, so allowing a persons perception of how stressful the event is, to be taken into account.  We have included a copy of Professor Coopers modified version in the course materials for you to view and use.


Click here for Cooper's Life Stress Inventory


b) Daily Hassles

"Any idiot can face a crisis its this day-to-day living that wears you out." (Anton Chekov)

The majority of causes of stress that we face on a day-to-day basis are not as extreme as life events.  The day-to-day causes of stress are called daily hassles; they are those daily, minor irritations such as misplacing our car keys, traffic jams, minor arguments with family/colleagues, etc.  Research by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), at the University of California, indicated that it was the daily hassles rather than the major life events that affected us the most.  Life events do not occur every day, but daily hassles do; its the constant, daily frustration caused by these hassles that cause us the most stress, because they occur so regularly and therefore can undermine our health.


Some Examples of Daily Hassles

       Misplacing keys


       Traffic jams

       Time pressures

       Lack of sleep

       Fear of Crime









       Excess noise

       Inconsiderate people

       Difficult neighbours

       Car breakdown

       Meal Preparation

       Job dissatisfaction

       Office Politics

       Problems with children


2.  Internal Stressors


"Stress resides neither in the situation nor in the person; it depends on a transaction between the two."

(Dr Richard Lazarus PhD)

We tend to think that stress is solely caused by external events, situations and people, yet this is not strictly correct.  Research has found that the Transactional Model of Stress is more accurate.  This model says that stress is caused by a transaction, ie there is an interaction between the stressor, our view of the stressor and our perceived ability to cope with it.  Its our own internal beliefs, attitudes, interpretations, perceptions and other factors, in combination with the external events that tend to create stress.   Internal factors which influence how we perceive stress include our:



       Locus of control

       Low assertion

       Low self esteem

       People pleasing






Examples of Some Causes of Stress


Physical Stressors

       Sleep debt

       Excess/to little exercise

       Poor diet

       Drug misuse

       Alcohol misuse

       Excess heat

       Excess caffeine

       Chronic hyperventilation

       Excess cold




       Lack of relaxation


       Chronic pain

Psychological Stressors

       Excess anger

       Unrealistic beliefs

       Excess pessimism

       Health worries

       Unrealistic expectations

       Excessive worrying

       Unhappy childhood


       Financial problems



       Low self esteem

       Low levels of assertion

       People pleasing


       Negative self talk


       Rigid thinking style

       Excessive self criticism


       Giving talks/presentations

Environmental Stressors


       Excess noise

       Poor housing

       Damp conditions

       Traffic jams

Work Stressors


       Time pressures

       Job insecurity

       Excess working hours

       Workplace bullying

       Company takeovers


       Conflicts with colleagues

       Low pay

       Role ambiguity

       Delegation problems

       Lack of work recognition

       Poor support/supervision


Family Stressors

       Caring for a chronically ill relative

       Partner with health problems

       Partner with alcohol/drug problems

       Relationship difficulties

       Arguments with children


       Children leaving home

Social Stressors

       Fear of  crime

       Living in an urban area


       Low social support

       Bureaucracy/red tape

       Rude, aggressive, unhelpful people

       Victim of crime

       Problem neighbours

       Racial harassment



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