By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
A fundamental point about stress is that different people can respond to the same event in really different ways. This means that the same event can lead to different physical and psychological effects on different people. This is why some people seem to thrive on stress and others become debilitated. Helping people respond to stressful events in a more positive way can lead to better physical and psychological well-being.
What Causes Stress?
Let’s start by examining what causes stress. One of the major sources of stress is our relationships. Conflict with friends, family members, and spouses all cause stress, including more serious family issues, such as concern about money, a loved one with a major illness, or divorce.
And it’s not just the bad events; good events also create stress. Why? Change is stressful, and even welcome changes—getting married, having a baby, getting a new job, retiring, moving to a new house—all disrupt our existing lives in many ways. For most people, work involves stress. Most jobs involve meeting deadlines, making difficult decisions, and spending time with colleagues who may not be your favorite people.
Work stress is particularly intense for those with jobs that involve responsibility for saving people’s lives: doctors, firefighters, air traffic controllers. In these jobs, making a mistake can literally have life or death consequences. This is one reason why burnout is particularly common in people who work in helping professions, such as doctors, nurses, police officers, and social workers.
Living in a Stressful Environment
Beyond our immediate personal and professional environment, factors within the broader environment also contribute to stress. This can include long-term stressors, such as living in a community with high levels of crime, noise, or pollution.
But it can also include shorter-term cataclysmic events that can be particularly stressful, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings. And you don’t have to experience these events personally to feel stress.
Researchers in one study measured the level of stress in Americans across the country in the weeks following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. People who watched six or more hours a day of media coverage of the bombings were nine times more likely to report experiencing high stress than those who watched fewer than one hour a day.
Moreover, while it’s possible to describe different sources of stress—relationships, work, environment, and so on—as distinct from one another, in reality, different types of stress can be interrelated.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Stress Can Lead to a ‘Broken Heart’
Regardless of the specific factors causing stress, stress can be directly damaging to your health. People who are under stress have a greater risk of developing many different illnesses and diseases, including ulcers, diabetes, arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, headaches, hives, back pain, and cardiovascular diseases. In some cases, experiencing stress may lead to potentially fatal consequences.
For example, stress-induced cardiomyopathy refers to a medical condition first observed in the early 1990s in which a person appears to be having a heart attack. This condition, informally known as ‘broken heart syndrome’, is brought on by a surge of stress hormones, leading to chest pain and trouble breathing. But these symptoms are triggered by an intense physical or emotional event, such as divorce, the death of a spouse, major financial trouble, or a serious medical diagnosis.
And in some cases, broken heart syndrome can be fatal. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people age 60 and over who experienced the death of a spouse were two times more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke in the month following this loss than married people who did not experience this loss.
Learn from the Zebras
How exactly does stress lead to such negative health consequences? Think about the last time you felt stressed: heart racing, stomach queasy, muscles tensed. What caused that feeling of stress? Often it is something relatively, in the scheme of things, minor. Maybe you had to give an important presentation at work or felt overwhelmed getting prepared to host a dinner party.
But here’s the problem: our body’s natural physiological stress response is designed to help us respond to extreme, life-threatening situations—say when you are chased by a large barking dog or when you are in combat during war. But we also show this same physiological stress reaction even in situations that are not actually life-threatening in any way.
As Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky writes in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.”
In contrast, zebras only show a heightened physiological reaction—heart beating fast, rapid breathing, muscles tensing—when responding to actual life-and-death emergencies, such as being chased by a lion.
Common Questions about How Stressful Events Affect Our Well-being
Stressful events can be both negative and positive things that happen in life. Change, in general, is stressful and it disrupts one’s life even if its a welcome change like getting married or having a baby.
Broken heart syndrome is the informal name of a medical condition called stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The condition happens after a surge of stress hormones have been released and the person appears to be having a heart attack. But the surge of stress hormones is triggered by an intensely stressful event such as the death of a loved one.
The stressful events that our body’s physiology is prepared to respond to have life-or-death stakes, just like the zebra’s response to life-threatening situations. The problem is that we have the same response to events in life that aren’t as life-threatening as the risk of being attacked. In this way, we turn on a system meant for short-term responses, sometimes for months on end.