Stress occurs in situations that we perceive as taxing or exceeding our resources. We also experience stress in situations that are different from what we believe should happen or what we want. Stress is a natural and inevitable part of life, however; as Hans Selye said, “The absence of stress is death.” Some of these stressors – such as swatting a fly away – are trivial, however, other stressors are much more significant.
Think about our experience of stress as an attempt to mobilize our resources in response to a stressful event. So when we’re walking outside in the dark and someone jumps out and attacks us, our body helps us respond to the attack. The problem is that our body can either respond to and prevent an attack (helpfully) or freeze (unhelpfully).
In general, we are more likely to experience stress in response to things that we value than those we don’t. For example, college students who value their education are more likely to experience stress about their grades than those who are in school only as a way of postponing getting a job.
We experience stress in response to both negative and positive events. We understand why we might be stressed when we lose a job, for example, but it can be very confusing to feel stressed in response to the holidays, getting married, or giving birth. In addition, our friends and family may not understand such feelings, leaving us feeling isolated and misunderstood during these periods.
There are also daily hassles we experience (e.g., spilling orange juice at breakfast, losing your keys, getting a parking ticket) can be a better predictor of stress than only the things we typically see as stressors, perhaps because they signal that we aren’t handling things as well as we'd like. The more stressors and hassles we experience, the more likely we will feel stress – the cycle of stress can increase due to triggers combined with our reaction.