Working on a new book, and was asked to give examples of possible stressors. Which….would be a whole encyclopedic set should I make that attempt. And then we all laugh hysterically because there is just so much and we didn’t even really scratch the surface. So after doing a deep dive in how other people have written about stress and stressors and categories of stress, I decided to create a taxonomy of sorts, instead. I wanted something more functional/useful than a big list.
(and yes, feel free to point out [nicely, yakoke] anything I missed…tho you definitely don’t need to worry about text edits, my editor will shiv me on that herself)
By looking at stress categorically, it may help us later figure out ways to better manage or mitigate it. The type of stressor over which I have zero-to-little control will often be better approached with one type of coping skill than a stressor created because I didn’t manage my boundaries and schedule better, right? Ok, so let’s look at our super un-official taxonomy then.
The Top Categories
These are the larger “ is it _____ or ______” categories of potential stressors that help us define our experiences in a more global sense.
Physiological or Psychological
Physiological stressors are those things that affect the equilibrium of our physical bodies. This could be an injury, an accident, health problems, chronic pain, aging and body deterioration, and pregnancy. While these stressors clearly have a psychological impact, they start with something happening to or inside our bodies.
Psychological stressors are the ones that affect the equilibrium of our cognitive-emotional lives. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are filtered through a sense of exhaustion, concern, struggle, or dis-ease. Even those stressors that are wanted and embraced (such as returning to school, getting married, starting a new job) are adding to our mental load in ways that have a level of negative impact.
Acute or Chronic
Acute stressors are those that are of shorter duration and have a fairly recent onset. Like signing up for a course that is going to last six weeks and noticing that the time, energy, and workload associated with that course is really a lot to manage.
Chronic stressors are those that persist over time or have long-lasting effects over time. If you are curious about timelines, in the field of medicine, a disease is labeled chronic if it continues for more than three months. I consider this a considered and appropriate timestamp because the damage we incur in the process of longer-term stressors can be seen and measured and it also changes how we approach managing it. Where the acute stressor may be a 6 week course, a chronic stressor may be grad school. Yes, there is an end in sight, but it’s in the distance to the point of being hazy at the moment and we need long-term management skills to keep heading in the right direction.
Absolute or Relative
Absolute stressors are those that are universal or near-universal. Meaning anyone in the same situation would have the same response to some degree. And sure, there are always some people who are fine in awful situations, so let’s use the rule of thumb created by anthropologist Angeles Arrien here. If 80% of humans would have the same reaction in a particular situation, it’s safe to call it universal. Pandemic related stress, death of a loved one, etc., are absolute stressors.
Relative stressors are the ones that are more individualized and are related to our genetics, epigenetics, and unique personal histories. For example, someone who has been deployed and traveled in convoys in war-torn countries will likely find traffic more stressful than a civilian. Or someone with neurodiversity may find interpersonal interactions more stressful than an allistic person.
The Stressor Catchments
Here is where we get a little more specific, looking at the impacts of certain situations on our life domains, moral compass, and individual well-being. These categories are not entirely discrete, meaning a stressor you are experiencing may fit into more than one category. But they are, like the above categories, designed to help you think about how to best approach managing the particular stressor. For example, how you manage a financial stressor and a relationship stressor would likely be markedly different.
Personal Activating Stressors are the stressors that are tied to historical events and our own personalities/constitutions. So yes, this is the category that ties specifically to our trauma histories and mental health needs. It is less about a true trauma trigger ,and more about the uncomfortable associations and reminders of past events that ping our nervous systems in ways that we have to notice and care for. It can also be the things that activate our anxiety, our addictions, are unhelpful habits, and other things that aren’t directl related to a trauma history but have a strong correlation around behaviors that we are working hard to not engage in. For example, having to present at work may activate a panic attack or being at a party may make you want to drink when you’re sober. Managing these situations is more stressful because of your history, rather than the event itself.
Snowball Stressors are the daily, common disruptions that most everyone faces that have a larger effect over time and/or when we have an extra dose of fuckery. We’ve all done it where traffic was fucked, our lunch order got messed up, our boss was chingy for no damn reason, a friend was short with us, our partner was grumpy….and then a flat tire???? None of these things are pleasant experiences, all could be considered slightly stressful but they continue to build up and combine as they roll through our day/week/etc.
Life Balance Stressors are the effects of having too much on our schedules that we let our other needs slide. This is the stress effect of not getting enough sleep/not eating things that best nourish and please us, not moving our bodies enough, not having time for pleasure, not attending to our relationships, etc. When the things that make life living are eroded in order to make space for the “have-tos” then we start to experience stress.
Significant Life Change Stressors are the big life changes that we can’t avoid, and sometimes even seek out and embrace, but they still require an outpouring of resources from us. Changing jobs, having kids, getting a partner, getting rid of a partner, moving, etc., are all life change stressors.
Systems Stressors are the stressors related to the organizational systems we all take part in. Work and school are two big ones but it could also be a group or club you belong to. Or the justice system, should you enter into it. Even positive systems (like the political advocacy group you volunteer for because you believe in) can cause stress. There are the personalities of others that you have to contend with (conflict), there are rules to follow which can lead to a lack of agency or autonomy, there are aspects of most systems that don’t align with our personal values which requires us to make choices about how we engage, etc.
Financial Stressors because that is huge for almost everyone at some point in their lives if not the entirety of their lives. Not having enough money to meet one’s needs and/or obligations is such a significant stressors, some researches have posited that it can lead to traumatic stress/ PTSD over time (see my book Unfuck Your Worth if you’re interested in more on this topic).
Sociorelational Stressors are the Jean-Paul Sartre of stressors since he is the one who famously said “hell is other people.” These are the stressors associated with problems/breakdowns in our relationships, as well as lack of social supports and loneliness. We both need people and people can be exasperating, exhausting, disappointing, shady, and generally as people-y as we are. And navigating all that takes energy.
Societal Event Stressors are stressors that are society wide if not worldwide. This includes war (and all of the softer synonyms we use for war like escalating conflict or whatever), environmental issues like climate change, SARS-Covid-19, etc.
Knowledge Gap Stressors are the stressors associated with not-knowing. Of being in an unfamiliar situation which can be concerning to fear-inducing. Novel situations where you don’t know the rules like traveling to a new place, starting a new job, any place where you need to make a decision without access to all available data.
Empathic Stressors are the stressors about being worried for or about others. This could be people we know and love, like worrying about a friend going through a significant loss…but it can also be generalized to the recognition of individuals or groups of people that we do not know but recognize as experiencing great pain, such as knowing a terrible earthquake happened in another part of the world and people there do not have food, water, shelter, and other safety needs.
This is excellent! Very glad that it’s not another one of those “top ten most stressful events” lists you see online that never include having a child in NICU (or hospital generally) or having a child with a disability even though it’s 2023 and lists aren’t just written by old men anymore 😠