What causes stress?

There are multiple factors that can lead to a person experiencing stress. Essentially, any challenge you face in life, whatever form it may take, can cause stress. There are different types of stressful events that we can experience.

Acute stress

Acute stress usually refers to a sudden threatening situation, such as avoiding a possible accident or an argument with a stranger. Acute stress produces the typical stress response and, once the stressor has passed, the body and mind should return to normal.

If acute stressors occur repeatedly, they can lead to the effects associated with chronic stress.

Examples of causes of acute stress include:

  • A sudden dispute or conflict that arises
  • Almost falling or hurting yourself
  • Narrowly avoiding a motor vehicle accident
  • A medical procedure

Trauma is a specific type of acute stress that’s of a more severe nature and which involves actual or threatened death, injury or sexual assault. This type of stressful event can lead to more severe problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Examples of causes of trauma include:

  • Motor-vehicle accidents
  • Physical assaults
  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual assaults
  • Sustaining a serious injury or illness
  • A loss, such as the death of a loved one

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is when you feel stressed for extended periods of time. This type of stress can lead to prolonged or repeated activation of the stress response and is typically the type of stress that produces most of the negative health consequences. 

Examples of causes of chronic stress include:

  • Living with a chronic illness
  • Conflict in relationships
  • Pressure in the work or school environment
  • Daily traffic congestion
  • Looking after someone with a chronic illness
  • Financial troubles
  • Lack of a work-life balance

Some events in our lives that are positive can also place stress on us – for example, starting a new phase of our lives like going to university, starting a new job, getting married or buying a new house.

Reviewed by Dr Leigh van den Heuvel, psychiatrist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital. August 2018.

Read more:
Symptoms and signs of stress


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