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Internal and External Stress

Can you identify some internal pressures and some outside factors that can cause you to feel stressed?

stressed man rubbing his eyes with his fingers

For most people, stress is a part of life. We feel it, complain about it and think about how we can get rid of it. But do we really understand what stress is and what we should do about it?

What is stress?

Simply put, stress is a physical response to a feeling, situation or event that interferes with your sense of well-being. The factors or emotions that cause you to feel anxious, tense or afraid are called stressors. Perception of stress is based on individual response. What may be stressful for one may be thrilling and challenging for another.

Internal vs. external stress

Some stressors are internal — stress-inducing thoughts or behaviors. These thoughts come from one’s psychological mindset or expectations. Examples include putting pressure on yourself to be perfect or fear of public speaking. In more serious cases, internal stressors may lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Other stressors come from external factors, which are forces that you can’t easily control. Examples include major life events, discovering your pay has been cut, urgent deadlines or an upcoming exam.

Internal and external stressors can have the same physical and psychological effects. You may have trouble sleeping, lose your appetite or lose interest in daily activities. You may be irritable, have headaches or stomach pains, or find that you cry easily.

Over time, chronic stress can be even more damaging. As your body stays in a state of alert, your immune system may be weakened. You could be more at risk for heart attack and stroke. Chronic stress may upset your reproductive and digestive systems.

As you can see, it’s important to figure out the sources of your stress so you can start working toward a more healthy and relaxed mental state. It is helpful to learn coping skills to deal with stress — as stress is part of life.

Managing stressors

Whether internal or external, stressors can usually be managed. Sometimes you can learn to respond to the stressor differently. You may try stress-relief techniques. And sometimes adjusting your thinking to a positive attitude can help. Eating a well-balanced diet and staying active with exercise also are important tools in helping manage stress.

Some examples of internal stressors

According to mental health experts at, here are some common internal stressors:

  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • All-or-nothing attitude
  • Need to always be perfect

Some examples of external stressors

Here are some examples of external stressors, says:

  • Major life changes, such as death of a loved one, divorce, military deployment, career that requires one to be away from home frequently
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial worries
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

Left untreated, everyday stresses can lead to chronic stress. If you feel depressed or hopeless, seek help from your doctor or a mental health professional right away. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater the chances of successfully coping with stress.

By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor

National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things you should know about stress. Accessed: May 3, 2017. Stress symptoms, signs, and causes: The harmful effects of stress and what you can do about it. Accessed: May 3, 2017.
American Psychological Association. How stress affects your health. Accessed: May 3, 2017.

Last Updated: May 4, 2017