What causes stress can differ considerably from person to person. Something that may not bother you may cause severe stress to someone else, and the other way around. Stresses can be individual, or they can be several small things adding up to one big stressor. There are also routine stresses and traumatic stresses, acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stresses, all of which affect people in different ways. Stresses aren’t always necessarily caused by a “bad” situation, they can be caused by seemingly happy events or events that you’ve chosen, such as marriage, moving, graduation, promotions, becoming a parent, and retirement.
When you experience stress, your body releases hormones that are meant to help you cope. These hormones, including cortisol, trigger your fight-or-flight response. These hormones are supposed to protect you by pushing you to react to the stress that you’re facing. Your body reacts to the hormones by tensing your muscles and increasing your heart rate or pulse, making you ready and alert, to react. Stress becomes a problem, however, when the stress reactions don’t resolve once the danger or perception of danger has been removed, and the feeling of over-alertness doesn’t go away.
Acute stress or short-term stresses start and stop suddenly. An acute stress can range from narrowly missing being hit by a car while you’re crossing the street or having a fight with someone you love. The stresses trigger the hormone release but the sensation should go away once you have overcome the stress.
Chronic stress is caused by situations that affect you over a longer period, such as financial issues, stressful situations at work, or relationship difficulties. The hormones may be released but because the stress doesn’t go away completely, your body doesn’t know how to cope with that constant feeling of anxiety or worry.
Here are just a few examples of other situations that can cause significant stress:
- Death of a loved one
- Illness or injury
- Being a caregiver for frail or ill relative or chronically ill child
- Buying or selling a home
- Hazardous event like fire, flood, natural disaster, or car crash
- Becoming a parent
- Job change
- Exposure to excessive noise or other stimulation
Stressful situations, particularly traumatic events, may lead to a more severe problem called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, you may re-experience the event, have nightmares, or experience flashbacks. You may find yourself thinking of the event for no reason. Avoidance of anything that may trigger ideas or thoughts of the event can add to the stressful feelings.