Causes of Stress

We all know what stress feels like, but sometimes we cannot seem to figure out why we are so stressed out. While I think it is more important to look at how to resolve it, I also believe that understanding the causes of stress can help inform us about how to leverage and resolve it.

An imbalance of traits and reality

When traits like “skill level” and realities like “challenge at hand” are matched up well, or balanced, we experience something called “Flow,” or “being in the Zone, or Groove.” It can be best visualized on a graph:

Causes of stressFlow theory

What we see here is that if Challenge is matched with Skill, then we are in the Flow Channel, or in the Zone/Groove. If our skill-set outpaces the challenge, then we get bored; whereas if the challenge out-matches our skills, then we experience anxiety or frustration. Both boredom and anxiety are states of stress.

To be clear, Skills and Challenges are not the only 2 dynamics that can be applied here. For example, when we balance our Thinking mind with our Feeling mind, we experience a flow called Wise mind.

Chemical imbalances

Chemical imbalance can result from genetics (high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, etc.), circumstances (real or perceived threat to safety, employment, relationship, etc.), and of course, from putting other chemicals in the body (alcohol, certain medications that treat one thing but create toxicity in another area).

When we see that the discomfort created by these chemical imbalances is trying to motivate us to do something different, we begin to see how stress is trying to help us (to stop drinking alcohol, for example).

Being in a state of distress, for whatever reason, also creates an imbalance in hormones, neurotransmitters, neuro-modulators and a host of other chemicals that our brains and bodies produce. This chemical cocktail is designed to be short-lived, and to give a brief burst of energy to facilitate Fight or Flight (or Freeze) . . . these are survival mechanisms that are deeply rooted in our unconscious mind and sometimes gets triggered by non-life threatening situations. This is why we sometimes feel a rush of panic before a board meeting; the body and unconscious mind are interpreting the anxiety as if there is an actual threat to our safety, and giving us the energy/motivation to take action.

Actual threats

Of course, if there is an actual threat to safety, our stress mechanisms kick in to protect us. This does not just mean the rush during the threat, but can also mean Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) after the threat subsides. For some, depending on their genetics, conditioning, and environment, and on the threat itself, the PTS can last longer or shorter. The ‘D’ in PTSD (PTS-Disorder) comes into play when the symptoms are life altering enough, and persistent enough for to become problematic beyond the what we might typically expect from a threatening event.