What are the 4 Basic Sources of Stress?

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” – Ovid

Stress is an unavoidable byproduct of life.  When natural changes occur, we typically experience stress during the process of adaptation.  It is worthwhile to note that stress results from both positive and negative changes.  When we experience negative changes (e.g., experiencing some type of loss) it is easily understood that stress results.

It may be slightly less intuitive to consider the ways in which stress results from positive changes (e.g., falling in love or getting a promotion).  Even the happy events of life usually result in the experience of some form of stress.  It is the change that is stressful.

Sources of Stress

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Davis, Eshelman, & McKay, 2008) sheds light on four basic sources of stress to consider.

(1) Environment

Our environment is constantly bombarding us with a diverse array of allergens, toxins, pollution, noise, and traffic.  Our bodies are constantly adapting to whatever our current environment is throwing at us.  While there are aspects of the environment that are more difficult to personally control, it is important to note which aspects of our personal environment we can control.  How can you actively make your living and working environment as clean, healthy, and free of unnecessary stress as possible?

(2) Social

There is a wide array of stressors within our social worlds placing demands on our time and attention as well as our mental and emotional resources.  This social context is constantly presenting us with interpersonal challenges to juggle: work demands, financial obligations, family life, and loved ones.  In order to successfully navigate our social worlds without becoming overwhelmed by stress, we must learn how to balance obligations, needs, and desires effectively.

(3) Physiological

Our bodies are constantly undergoing changes as we go through the days, weeks, months, and years.  Sometimes we nourish our bodies with proper sleep, adequate exercise, and balanced nutrition.  Other times we abuse our bodies with lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, and a poor diet.  It is true that we are often our own worst enemies when we make ourselves unhealthy through poor lifestyle choices.  Many unhealthy choices are made in an effort to achieve “instant gratification” or mistakenly take away stress in the moment.  All of those unhealthy choices only come back to increase our levels of stress in the long-term.  The trick lies in finding a healthy balance that can be maintained as an ongoing lifestyle.

(4) Thoughts

Our own internal cognitive processes are an incredible source of stress for many people.  The way that we interpret changes in our environments has a great deal to do with the subjective levels of stress that we actually experience.  Two people could experience the exact same life change, but if those two people have very different thoughts about that life change, their levels of stress will be just as different.  For example, if two people both received an e-mail from their boss or professor asking to speak with them privately at the end of the day, there are very different thoughts that could occur.  One person might think, “Oh no, I just know I’m going to get fired!”  While the other person thinks, “I must have done really well with that presentation!”  It is easy to see how subjective levels of stress will be quite different for these two individuals.

What recent life changes have you experienced (positive or negative) that have impacted your current level of stress?  Do you feel that you typically experience higher levels of stress in any one of these four basic categories?  Sometimes we don’t even realize how many changes we may have experienced recently until we take a moment to pause and reflect on recent life changes.  It is helpful to practice directing compassion towards yourself during times of intense stress, and remember that all changes (even the happy ones) bring with them levels of stress as we adapt.

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Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: – Despair by Juliana Coutinho / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Elise on May 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I love this article! I can definitely relate finding myself stressed out even due to positive change and then wondering why I’m stressed! It makes sense that it’s the change that brings on the stress, not whether it’s a positive or negative situation. Thanks Laura! Another great article 🙂

    • Laura on June 1, 2011 at 9:13 pm

      Elise – It can be difficult to make sense of stress when experiencing an “abundance of riches” as far as positive life events go. Simply adapting to the change inherent to both positive and negative events takes time and patience. I’m glad you enjoyed this article!

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