Causes of Stress & How the Body Reacts

Mar 04, 2021 Stress 6 MIN

what causes stress
Have you been under stress lately? You’re not alone. More than three-fourths of the country reports regularly feeling stressed, according to the American Institute of Stress. Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but there are many factors you can control to keep stress in check. Experiencing acute stress from time to time is normal, as it is the body’s natural reaction to challenging or threatening situations. For example, if you have an upcoming presentation in front of a large audience, stress can help you meet the expectations of the situation. On a physical level, stress can make you experience symptoms such as an upset stomach, fatigue, headache, changes in appetite, and dizziness. Stress can also make you feel irritable and nervous.

The American Institute of Stress reports that 33% of Americans feel extreme stress as a part of their daily lives. This is a high percentage of the population considering that an unhealthy stress level can make you susceptible to more serious health problems. Let’s take a look at what happens in the body when stress is triggered.

What Happens in the Body During Stress?

 Responding to stress is built into your body as a natural means for survival against threats to safety such as fires, attacks by animals, and other forms of conflict. This stress response, historically called the ‘fight or flight’ response, is an automatic response of the body when facing a dangerous situation that helps you prepare to either face the situation or flee. The fight or flight response activates the sympathetic nervous system, increases heart rate, enhances the circulation of blood to muscles, elevates breathing rate, and quickens the thought process. Importantly, the fight or flight response is also associated with the release of the crucial stress hormones, cortisol, and epinephrine (also named adrenaline). Collectively these physiological changes fuel the body’s response to a challenging situation.

While the stress response has an evolutionary benefit and helps us face life-threatening or dangerous situations, it is also the reason why your body may overreact to smaller triggers of stress, such as an upcoming deadline at work or being late to a meeting. That’s why it is important to identify the cause of negative stress in your life, so you can take measures to bring your stress level down.

What Causes Stress?

Not everyone responds the same way to a stressful situation. It’s unclear why some people experience more emotional stress from the same event compared to other people. What is considered to be a small ‘stressor,’ or trigger of stress, for one person might be a big stressor for someone else. Your personal background and history of experiences may influence how you respond to a new or challenging stressful situation. According to surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) since 2017, the top stressors in America are related to finances, politics and work. On average, women also reported feeling more stressed than men.[1]

You may not know the exact reason why you feel stressed. In reality, it may be a combination of factors that is causing your stress. Not knowing what causes stress is actually quite common. Here is a list of the top stressors that people commonly encounter. Try to examine how each factor impacts your life to figure out whether they are sources of stress for you.

1. Financial Problems

Increasing financial burden is among the top reported causes for stress in the United States. Overdue bills, high credit card balances, and meeting the demands of a high mortgage or rent are all common reasons for stress. According to a recent survey by the APA, a staggering 72% of Americans said they were stressed about money in the past month, irrespective of the economic background of the person. However, families from lower economic backgrounds had overall higher stress.[2] Losing a job, worries about retirement funds, and high medical expenses are all specific causes of financial stress in Americans, according to the American Institute of Stress.

2. Traumatic Events

Experiencing a traumatic event can trigger the body’s stress response. If you are already under prolonged stress due to other factors in your life, traumatic events can make the stress worse. Examples of traumatic events are being in a car accident, being subjected to abuse or violence, undergoing a serious health problem or illness, and natural disasters. Stress that is experienced during a traumatic event is a normal part of the fight or flight response, but if this stress persists for days or weeks after the event, be sure to seek support from family or friends, and/or seek professional help from a therapist or other healthcare practitioner. Chronic stress after a traumatic event can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder that may require professional mental health evaluation and treatment.  

3. Emotional Stress

Being diagnosed with a serious or life-threatening illness, can be a significant source of stress to the patient and their loved ones. Health problems may happen suddenly without warning and can cause physical, emotional and financial stress on the diagnosed person and their family. Dealing with the stress of health problems can be difficult. Reach out to loved ones for support, find a support group, and try to engage in things you love to help you cope with the illness.

4. Workplace Stress

About 60% of Americans undergo job-related stress according to the APA. Workplace stress can negatively impact many aspects of a person’s job, including productivity, communication with colleagues, and overall performance. Personal conflicts within the workplace, problems with bosses, and being overworked are all common contributors to daily work stress. However, work related stress is not always negative. If you’re starting a new job, or recently got promoted to a new position at your current workplace, it’s normal to experience some level of stress to prepare for new responsibilities that come with the new job or position.

5. Relationship Problems

Personal relationships with your spouse, parents, children, other members of your household, or friends are among the top reasons for stress according to the APA. Among specific reasons compiled in surveys, the APA reports that divorce, death of a spouse, and loneliness rank the highest as causes for stress.[3]

6. Not Sleeping Enough

Sleep deprivation has several health consequences, of which stress is no exception. Most adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and if you don’t get proper sleep it can lead to stress and irritability. About 70% of American adults report insufficient sleep at least once per month.[4] Research has shown that sleeping only 4.5 hours a day for one week is associated with higher levels of stress, anger and mental exhaustion.[5] Being sleep deprived can also interfere with the proper release and functioning of the stress hormone required for the body’s stress response. Short sleep can also lead to nutrient shortfalls for many essential nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and Vitamins A, C, D, E and K. It can also increase your risk for obesity, mood disruptions and even have impact on your immune system.[6]

7. Not Getting Proper Nutrition

An unhealthy diet that is poor in nutrition is directly linked to higher levels of stress. Unhealthy eating habits include overeating, not eating enough or food deprivation, or a diet that is high in fat, sodium and sugar, and low in fiber. Too much caffeine and processed foods are also nutritional factors that can lead to added stress to the body and mind.

8. Media Overload

The American Institute of Stress reports that media overload is a top reason for stress in the United States. Media can include television, e-mail, browsing the internet, social media, and the radio. Social networking can be a source of social support for people, but research says it can also be a contributor to stress.  Setting limitations to the amount of time you spend on social media or checking e-mail can be helpful in controlling this stressor.

How to Manage Stress

Although this is a list of the most common stressors people experience, there are other common causes of excessive stress that you may face. Moving to a new place, being unemployed, experiencing bullying or cyberbullying, starting a new school, living in an area with crime, discrimination, thinking about a past or upcoming stressful event, and injuries are all known factors that can cause stress in daily life.

The first step in addressing your stress is to figure out what the biggest cause of stress is in your life. Try stress management measures such as reaching out to friends and family for support, and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and listening to calming music. Eating healthy and getting regular exercise and physical activity are also proven tips for how to reduce stress.

Importantly, don’t hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider about stress management options that may work well for you based on your own personal background.


This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.








[6] Reference: S&T study:  CIkonte C, Mun J, Reider C, Grant R, Mitmesser SH. Micronutrient Inadequacy in Short Sleep: Analysis of the NHANES 2005-2016; Nutrients 11 (2019)


Lynn M. Laboranti, RD

Science and Health Educator

Lynn is a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) and is a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team at Pharmavite. She has over 20 years of experience in integrative and functional nutrition and has given lectures to health professionals and consumers on nutrition, dietary supplements and related health issues. Lynn frequently conducts employee trainings on various nutrition topics in addition to educating retail partners on vitamins, minerals and supplements. Lynn has previous clinical dietitian expertise in both acute and long-term care, as well as nutrition counseling for weight management, diabetes, and sports nutrition. Lynn earned a bachelor’s of science in Nutrition with a minor in Kinesiology/Exercise Science from The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a M.S. degree in Human Nutrition from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Lynn is an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Sports Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists, Dietitians in Functional Medicine, and holds a certification in Integrative and Functional Nutrition through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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