The 5 Risk Factors Affecting Your Stress Levels

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the common factors affecting stress? What outside factors impact the degree of stress we experience?

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky claims that we experience constant psychological stressors that trigger chronic stress, like financial and career concerns. However, he claims that there are five specific psychological factors affecting the degree of stress we experience in daily life.

Read on to discover the five psychological factors that affect stress, according to Sapolsky.

The 5 Psychological Factors of Stress

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky argues that chronic stress arises because our bodies are responding to constant psychological stressors. However, in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he describes how there are outside factors that can impact the degree of stress we experience. Sapolsky identifies five psychological factors affecting stress that can change the level of stress we feel: 1) the ability to vent frustration, 2) social support, 3) predictability, 4) control, and 5) our perception of whether things are getting better or worse.

In this article, we’ll explain each of these five factors that affect how we experience stress, according to Sapolsky’s findings.

1. Venting Frustration

The first factor that affects how we experience stress involves venting (or not venting) your frustrations. Sapolsky claims that humans can deal with stress better if they have a way to relieve it. Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself—maybe you feel less frustrated if you exercise, yell into a pillow, or simply do something you enjoy. Humans can even imagine a way to vent frustration and feel relief. Being able to vent frustration helps distract you from the stressor, but it also reminds you that there is more to life than the stress of your current situation. 

(Shortform note: Most stress reduction techniques revolve around finding ways to vent frustration. Here are some more specific ways to vent frustration: Engage with media (such as music, a podcast, or book); take care of your body (by exercising, showering, or eating); go outside; or write about your thoughts or feelings. This last item might give you relief by letting you write about and then imagine releasing your frustration without actually doing anything.)

2. Social Support

According to Sapolsky, another common factor affecting how much stress you feel involves whether or not you have a strong social support network. People who feel they have social or communal support are often much less stressed. A number of studies support this effect: When dealing with a relatively small stressor like public speaking or arguing with strangers, people with a supportive friend present show less of a cardiovascular stress response. In women diagnosed with breast cancer, the more social support they have, the lower their cortisol levels. People who are socially isolated, on the other hand, are much more likely to have an overactive sympathetic nervous system. 

(Shortform note: Though social support has been shown to reduce the adverse health effects of stress, research suggests that the stress-reducing benefits of social support may not be as strong in marginalized populations. For people living in poverty, social support may not be as helpful as for more affluent populations because there are fewer resources available in poverty-stricken communities and therefore fewer tangible benefits to social support. Additionally, when there are fewer resources available, social support may create more interpersonal conflict, which increases stress.)

3. Predictability 

Furthermore, Sapolsky claims that if you can predict when your next stressor will be, you’ll be less affected by it. The reason this a factor that affects your degree of stress is because when you know that a stressor is coming, you can prepare for it. Additionally, knowing when the stressor won’t happen lets you relax during that time. For example, knowing that at some point in the year you’ll get a sudden migraine is more stressful than knowing which day and at what time it will happen. 

(Shortform note: Experts suggest that predictability is especially important for children, whose brains are still developing and who are thus more impacted by stress than adults. Unpredictable environments early in life have been shown to adversely affect the brain’s development and, in some cases, to even affect mental health throughout adulthood. Predictability in a child’s life is so important because it helps set a foundation of trust and care that is vital to healthy relationships and also helps the brain regulate emotions.)

4. Control

According to Sapolsky, a sense of control over a situation can also alleviate stress. For example, he observes that people are generally more afraid of flying in a plane than driving a car, even though it’s widely known the latter is much more dangerous. This is because when you fly, you cede complete control to the pilot of the plane. 

(Shortform note: The stress of air travel doesn’t just stem from a lack of control over steering. As psychologist Sally Augustin explains, when you fly, you’re forced to give up control of your environment. The decisions you have, such as what book to read or whether to open the window, are insignificant compared to the decisions you can no longer make for yourself—you can’t get away from the people sitting right next to you, go out for fresh air, or even use the bathroom at times. All of these lead to a perception that you have no control in your current situation, which is why flying can be so stressful for many people.) 

5. Perception of Things Getting Better or Worse

The same stressor can create drastically different stress reactions depending on whether you feel the situation is improving or worsening, writes Sapolsky. For example, back pain can be stressful, even if it’s mild. But mild back pain is much less stressful for someone who’s been suffering from severe back pain for months because for them, mild back pain is an improvement.

(Shortform note: The way your perception of improvement affects your stress level shows that simply changing how you think about a stressor can change its effect on you. One helpful way to reframe how you think about stress is to embrace the stress in your life. Since stress is inevitable, learning to see stress as something that you can get better at dealing with, and something that can make you a stronger, more capable person, is perhaps more effective than trying to reduce stress.) 

The 5 Risk Factors Affecting Your Stress Levels

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  • The physical and mental harm chronic stress does to your body
  • The steps you can take to reduce stress in your life
  • Why you should make your life more predictable

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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