Stress​—Its Causes and Effects

WHAT is stress? According to one expert, stress may be defined as “any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.” Does this mean that stress is inherently harmful? No. As Dr. Melissa C. Stöppler observes, “a mild degree of stress and tension can sometimes be beneficial. Feeling mildly stressed when carrying out a project or assignment often compels us to do a good job and to work energetically.”

So when is stress a problem? Says Stöppler: “It is only when stress is overwhelming, or poorly managed, that its negative effects appear.” Consider some common sources of stress.

The Stress of Making a Living

King Solomon said: “With a man there is nothing better than that he should eat and indeed drink and cause his soul to see good because of his hard work.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24) However, for many employees, the workplace is a caldron of pressures.

A report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work stated that workers are often stressed on their jobs because, among other things, there is poor communication between management and employees, management gives workers little say in decisions that affect them, there are conflicts with fellow workers, or there is job insecurity and/or inadequate pay. Whatever the reasons, coping with the strains of the workplace may leave working parents with little energy to deal with the demands of their families. And those demands can be enormous. In the United States, for example, during a one-year period, some 50 million people provided care for an ill or elderly family member. Financial problems can also be a potent source of family stress. Rita, a mother of two, faced financial distress when her husband, Leandro,  had an automobile accident, leaving him in a wheelchair. Rita admits: “Financial problems cause tension. When you do not have the money to cover all the expenses in the home, it affects your mood.”

The Pressures on Single Parents

Single parents likewise face high levels of stress as they try to meet the needs of their families. Getting up early to prepare breakfast, dressing children and dropping them off at school, rushing to be at work on time, and then dealing with the demands of a job may leave a single parent physically and emotionally exhausted. And when a mother’s workday is done, another cycle of stress is set in motion as she hurries off to pick up her children from school, fix dinner, and care for household chores. María, a single parent with four teenage daughters, compares her life to a pressure cooker, saying: “The pressure can build up so much that I feel as though I will explode.”

Children Under Stress

Says sociologist Ronald L. Pitzer: “Many young people experience high levels of stress.” They must deal with the physical and emotional changes of puberty. There are also the pressures of school. According to the book Childstress! the typical school day “is  fraught with problems and pressures creating stress​—in academics, sports, in peer relationships and in interchanges with teachers.”

In some areas the threat of school violence adds to feelings of anxiety​—not to mention the fears many youths now have of terrorist attacks and other disasters. “If parents are constantly talking about how scary the world is right now,” writes one teenage girl, “it’s going to make us scared.”

Parents should be a source of strength for their children. But, says Pitzer: “All too often, efforts by children and teens to communicate intense feelings are minimized, denied, rationalized, or ignored by parents.” In some cases parents are immobilized by their own marital tensions. “It seems like my parents were always fighting,” says young Tito, whose parents eventually divorced. As the book Childstress! observes, “physical fights and verbal altercations are not the only causes for trauma. Smoldering resentment that transmits itself even when masked by honied words unsettles children.”

The Price of Stress

Whether you are young or old or the stress in your life comes from work or school, chronic stress can take a heavy toll on your health. One medical writer explains: “The stress response of the body is somewhat like an airplane readying for take-off.” Yes, when you feel stress, your heart rate and blood pressure soar. Your levels of blood sugar rise. Hormones are released. “If stress becomes persistent,” the same writer continues, “all parts of the body’s stress apparatus (the brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles) become chronically over- or under-activated. This may produce physical or psychologic damage over time.” The list of illnesses in which stress may play a role is alarmingly long: heart disease, stroke, immune disorders, cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, and diabetes, to name just a few.

Of particular concern is the unhealthy way in which many​—especially young ones—​try to cope with stress. Dr. Bettie B. Youngs laments: “It is very depressing to find out that in their desire to escape from pain, teenagers take routes such as alcohol and drug abuse, truancy, delinquency, sexual promiscuity, aggression and violence, and running away from home​—routes that lead them into problems more overwhelming than those they were trying to escape.”

Stress is a fact of modern living; it cannot be avoided entirely. But as the next article will show, there is much we can do to manage stress!

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“The pressure can build up so much that I feel as though I will explode”

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The life of single parents is often pressure filled

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School may place undue pressure upon youths