The 5 Primary Stressors and Their Coping Mechanisms

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

When researchers examined the kinds of things that produce chronic stress—the major categories of stressful events and situations—they came up with five big ones, and the inherent coping mechanisms associated with each. So what are these primary stressors?

A stressed-out woman working on her laptop in her office.
Workplace problems are one of the five major chronic stressors. (Image: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

The five major categories of stressors are exceptionally common and virtually unavoidable, which also helps to explain why so many people are so stressed out.

The Stress from Financial Problems

The most common ongoing source of stress is money. Financial problems show up as the most common source of stress in America, according to many studies.

Even in a developed country like the United States, where the standard of living is high on average, many people don’t have enough to pay the bills. And even people who have enough money for the basics of life live with the chronic stress of knowing that they don’t have enough for the extra expenses that will arise.

Learn more about why do hurt feelings hurt.

Stress and Relationships

Personal relationships also add to people’s stress. Of course, relationships are often a great source of pleasure and support. But relationships are also cauldrons of stress. Marital difficulties, conflicts with children, and arguments with family members can all create stress, particularly when the problems are protracted.

Academic Pressure Adds to the Stress

A college building undershine.
Schools and colleges are major stressors for young children as well as adults. (Image: Lyu Hu/Shutterstock)

People also experience a good deal of stress because of work and school. Studies show that less than 50 percent of employees are happy with their jobs, and many people live with the constant threat of losing their job. And similarly, academic pressures also puts students under a good deal of chronic stress.

Stressing Over Health Issues

Health problems are the fourth major source of stress. Being ill or injured or learning that you have a serious medical condition or must undergo medical procedures are major causes of stress for everybody, at one time or another in their lives.

Balancing Work and Family Is Stressful

The fifth category is regarding what might seem to be relatively trivial situations and events: the daily hassles and irritants that we experience on an ongoing basis.

Just driving to work through heavy traffic is stressful for many people. Trying to balance work and family life is stressful. Putting up with the neighbors’ loud music or a barking dog also creates stress. Life is filled with these sorts of events that add to our stress.

Like the other four categories, these daily hassles, irritants, and frustrations are also unavoidable, and they add to the stress that people experience.

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Different Predispositions to Stress

So, stress is a part of life. But as we look around, it’s easy to see that people differ in how well they cope with the stresses in their lives. Some people seem to come unglued at every turn and have lots of stress-induced problems, while other people seem to roll a little better with the punches.

In their efforts to understand the causes of stress and why some people manage stress better than other people, behavioral researchers have conducted a good deal of research on how different people relate to stress.

For instance, when people are exposed to a stressful situation or event, they evaluate the situation first—how threatening is it? And they also judge their own ability to cope with the issue—can I handle this problem?

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

People with Type A Personality Feel More Stress

For example, people with type A personality experience more stress than people who are low in type A, also known as type B personality. And there’s evidence that they are also more likely to have health problems that are due to stress, such as heart disease. So, why are type A people more stressed out than other people?

Type A people experience more stress because they genuinely experience more stressful events. And they experience more stressful events because they are engaged in a struggle to do more and more in less and less time. So, people with type A personality create lives for themselves in which they have too much to do. And as a result, they experience chronic stress from trying to squeeze too many things into too little time.

On top of that, a central aspect of being type A is having a sense of time urgency—the sense of never having enough time to get everything done—which, of course, can be stressful for anyone. But the reason that people who are high in type A don’t have enough time is that they try to do too much.

People with Neuroticism are Prone to Stress

Another personality characteristic that is associated with high stress is neuroticism. Neuroticism involves the degree to which people experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and yes, even stress. They experience great stress when big negative things happen, but they also get more upset by minor daily hassles.

One reason why people high in neuroticism experience greater stress is because they are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and to view minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They don’t necessarily experience more negative events, but they find ordinary problems and hassles more stressful.

People with Self-Compassion Feel Less Stress

We’ve mentioned two personality characteristics associated with a good deal of stress—type A personality and neuroticism; so, let’s close with a characteristic that has lower stress—and that’s self-compassion.

A happy family spending time together.
Behavioral researchers have found that self-compassion can lead to a reduction in stress. (Image: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock)

We all know what it means to have compassion toward other people—to show others care and concern when things are going badly for someone else. Self-compassion is the same sort of compassionate reaction, except it’s directed at one’s self.

How does one treat oneself when life goes badly? Many of us are really hard on ourselves in such situations, and particularly when we’re the ones who messed things up.

But some people are particularly forgiving and kind toward themselves when things go badly. They treat themselves with the same kind of caring and concern as they show to their loved ones when bad things happen. And a good deal of recent research shows that people who are self-compassionate experience less stress than people who are not self-compassionate.

People who are self-compassionate deal much better with stressful events for two reasons: They don’t heap unnecessary self-criticism on themselves when things go badly, and they actually go out of their way to be nice to themselves when stressful events occur.

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Stress is a major problem for many people, one that undermines the quality of their lives and can lead to a variety of health problems. Though a certain amount of stress is unavoidable, it’s also true that we create a great deal of stress ourselves.

In either case, learning how to cope with life in ways that minimize stress is an important life skill. And it’s never too late to begin learning.

Common Questions About Primary Stressors and Coping Mechanism

Q: What are the coping mechanism of stress?

The coping mechanisms of stress are broadly categorized as active or avoidant. Active usually involves an awareness of the stressor and our conscious attempts to reduce the stress, whereas avoidant method concentrates on either avoiding or forgetting the stressor.

Q: What are the three things that could cause chronic stress?

The three things that could cause chronic stress are the death of a loved one, chronic illness or injury, and loss of a job or increase in financial obligations.

Q: What is coping efficacy?

The coping efficacy is defined as a person’s belief that they have the ability to impact their own well- being, as it pertains to their problems, either physically or emotionally, through their own actions.

Q: What are stressors in life?

Stressors in life could be related to finances, personal relationships, work and school, health problems, or daily hassles and irritants.

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