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What Causes Stress?

In my consulting work, I have consistently heard similar answers to what causes stress?

For most of my clients, the answers were externally located. What that means is that I heard responses like,

“My job is stressful.”

“My boss, or co-workers stress me out.”

“The stress in my relationships is hard.”

“I’m so busy that I don’t have enough time to myself.”

While all of those responses were honest, and felt very real to my clients, their responses reflected the stressors in their lives, not what causes stress.

There is a difference between stress and a stressor.

What is stress?

There is a real physiology to stress that is important to understand.

Stress is a reaction, or a response that occurs naturally in the brain to a real or perceived threat to our body. The stress response happens without conscious thought…

The stress response is part of the autonomic nervous system of the brain…things that your body does without thinking about it…like breathing.

There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system:
  • “fight or flight” stress response – the sympathetic nervous system
  • and the relaxation response – the parasympathetic nervous system
Think of these two systems as one of the most important innate relationships the body has. There is a need for balance to exist between them…equal time spent within each one.

When too much of your time is spent functioning out of the fight or flight response, your normal stress turns into chronic stress .

The human body was designed to function optimally when in balance.

stress and balance

What is a stressor?

A stressor is anything in your life that YOU perceive as a threat.

That perception of a threat can be either real, for example, running from an attacker, or a perceived threat. An example of a perceived threat would be, “Am I going to lose my

And the perception of a threat will be different for each person.

Any threat of uncertainty…a fear, or a worry is going to be reacted to by the brain in the same way as if you were running from an attacker.

The stress response will get triggered in both cases.

For a moment, just stop and ponder how much time today you have thought about a threat of uncertainty such as a fear or worry? It’s often staggering to become aware of how much time in each day is spent in fear.

Coping with stress

I often get asked, “What can I do about my stress?”

What they are really asking is how they can adapt differently to the stressors in their lives so that stress doesn’t continue to have such a profoundly negative effect on their life.

Quite honestly, in my experience coaching clients I have learned that there are multiple sessions spent talking about that very subject because it is such a significant question.

But, the first step to an effective stress management program has to do with managing the physiology of stress .

So, given that, the first place to begin is by encouraging my clients to implement this MOST important stress strategy:

Do more slow healthy deep breathing from your abdomen frequently throughout the day.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

It is…

But, don’t for one second underestimate how important it is to do.

The benefit of doing healthy deep breathing

Let’s first recap what causes stress.

Stress is a reaction to a stressor. It’s a call to adapt to a stressor. Until you have adapted, the stress response (fight or flight) keeps getting triggered and your stress becomes chronic stress .

In my experiences with clients, doing a lot more healthy deep breathing throughout the day is the single most important thing you can do to manage your stress.

stress and healthy deep breathing


Because when you take a nice slow deep breath from your abdomen, the vagus nerve will then activate your relaxation response in your brain.

That creates more balance throughout your day.

More balance = less stress.

Less stress = you feel better and regain a sense of control over your life.

You have complete control over how to minimize what causes stress in your life.

Share Your Tips, and Ask Questions Too

In the world that we live in, there are many causes of stress. Actually, many stressors. If you have a question about what causes stress, or have a stress tip, please share it here.

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What Other Visitors Have Said

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Stress in people's lives. Not rated yet
Why does there seem to be so much stress in people's lives these days? It never used to feel this bad.

Mollie, thank you for the quesiton. And, …

how do i learn to handle my stress Not rated yet
How do I learn to handle my stress? It's getting really bad.

You have taken a very important first step by coming to my site to ask me that question. …

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“Ms. Churchill is the unique health care worker everyone hopes to encounter, but rarely does. She has an extraordinary gift that allows her to do much more than diagnose and treat.”
Abbie K. – Minneapolis

K., age 45, is a long term chronically PTSD disabled patient. She has had daily headaches for 20 years. Two weeks ago she reported that she had had 4 days of pain free time, and was having the exceedingly odd sensation of "smiling all the time". She and Cathi have made extraordinary fast progress together.
Dr. Cole

I referred C.L., age mid-forties, to see Cathi after a life of suffering the post traumatic stress disorder of parental sexual abuse over many years of her childhood, with major dysfunctions of alcohol and drug abuse, and with the disabling symptoms of migraine that have for more than twenty years become chronic.

She has lived with daily headaches that have not responded to any of the several drugs which have benefited many such suffering patients. She has needed chronic opiate treatment of her chronic pain syndrome.

In the few weeks that Cathi has worked with her, C.L. has begun to experience days without pain, periods of happiness, and a reduction in her opiate dosage requirements that represent a breakthrough in her stalled-out life as a single mom raising a teen-age daughter with only social security income resources.
Dr. Racer

“I first met Cathi Churchill eight years ago when she effectively helped my work unit through the stress of a hospital-wide layoff. I was impressed with her clear-minded approach and willingness to listen.”
Andy R.

N., age 60, is a hard driving attorney twenty year patient of mine who hit the wall with chronic fatigue four years ago, and began to realize she had to learn to rest. She recovered enough to return to her workaholic lifestyle when she was stopped by a herniated cervical disc and resumption of her chronic colitis.

Working with Cathi, she is discovering "the way she does life" and learning to make choices about it. She came in last week, having "danced until dawn". She is learning to dialogue with her body in effective ways.
Dr. Cole

“I stumbled upon Cathi after my recent heart attack that was brought on by stress. I was scared of having another one, and didn’t know what to do. I had lost hope. Working with her has changed my life. I’m so grateful."
Debbie – Canada

M.S., a woman in her late forties with progressively more and more disabling rheumatoid arthritis since childhood, whose most recent problems have arisen over the last two to three years as complications of immunosuppressive therapy for her disease. The complications have been associated with the severely disabling chronic pain of recurrent herpes neuralgia for more than three years, and for the past 15 months, recurrent osteomyelitis in her right lower mandible.

The second, more alarming (even life-threatening) problem has caused months of diagnostic and therapy confusion among her many consultants, three successive resections of the bone over the last six to eight months, and the still ongoing threat of more relapses of the smoldering bone infection and chronic pain only made bearable by chronic, massive doses of opiates.

In the few months since M. began to work with Cathi with several modalities: stress management, therapeutic touch, guided imaging, and others, her life has become more livable, as she has become able to bear the pain and the discouragement of unresolved disease.

She has relied on many of the methods for maintaining hope and getting through overwhelming discouragement by using the inner resources she has learned with Cathi.

My hope as her primary physician, is that Cathi and M. will be able to continue to work together to maintain that inner strength and hope as she faces yet more months of pain, and further repeated surgery.

Thank you for the healing guidance you've been able to give her thus far.
Dr. Racer

“I sought out the help of Cathi during my divorce, and found her to be an insightful and compassionate coach. Her ability to see deep into the heart of an emotionally stressful problem is, I believe, unique and I would highly recommend her service to anyone.”
P.R. – Brooklyn Center

S., age 48, is a Laotian patient of mine with 15 years of chronic abdominal pain. She has had an extensive medical worked up, and nothing ever worked. Cathi saw her over several months.

S. has improved! Cathi established a trusting relationship with her, and helped her to effectively break through her wall of silence and grief about her son's mental illness, and taught her how to "change her thinking".

S. now comes in smiling, notes some unusual continued symptoms, but no longer has chronic abdominal disabling pain.
Dr. Cole

“Control My Stress is so amazing. I want to thank you, again, for such a valuable resource.”

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