• Clare Hopkins

STRESS - uncovering the main cause and how to live at cause

What's the main cause of your stress?

  • Finances?

  • Work?

  • Family?

  • Health?

  • Relationships?

In numerous research studies and surveys, plus on many well known mental health platforms they often point to the cause of stress being due to one/some of the external factors above, and I've listed them in the order which most people say causes them the most stress.

But, what if I told you that the above external factors are not the main cause of your stress!

As someone who has trained in HR, NLP Coaching, Wellbeing and Mental Health, plus having lived experience of mental ill health myself, supported family members and also employees during my 12 year HR career. My findings are that whilst the above factors can and do impact the level of stress a person can experience, they do not address the main cause.

What is the main cause of stress?

It's largely down to how our mind has learnt to interpret external factors such as those listed above, so the main cause of stress is the meaning we apply to our life circumstances through our 'internal' thought process.

In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is the study of the human experience and human excellence, you learn about how the mind works and how we as humans think, communicate and behave.

A big insight for me was discovering that everyone has a unique internal model of how they view/interpret the world (reality) and this internal model is our blueprint for how we think, feel, communicate and behave. It's where our values, beliefs, memories and decisions are all stored from the day we were born.

Just think of this like a computer where the information inputs come from the keyboard, mouse and the content we enter, which all gets filtered through a programme to carry out required actions, but in our case the information being input is through our five senses. So everything we see, hear, smell, taste and feel goes through our neurological programme (our internal model) to filter, delete and distort what is happening in our world to give appropriate meaning based on our unique set of values, beliefs, memories and decisions. This means that everyone experiences the world differently and no two people will have the exact same interpretations.

This is why we ask others for their input to get their unique perspective on something, and why people have different interpretations from shared experiences like meetings and events. For example, one person may like an experience whereas another may dislike it, or one person may find a situation stressful whereas another may not.

At any given moment we are always interpreting millions of bits of information through our senses to give meaning to our life circumstances, creating our own reality through the lens of our internal world. I'm sure you can think of situations where you have talked to someone about a shared experience at an event where you wondered if you were both at the same event!

Without getting too technical, it's important to know that it's the subconscious part of our mind which runs the show with our internal model of the world, and it does this to give us a sense of certainty, as it's prime function is keep us safe and alive. So it keeps a record of everything we have ever experienced (like a filing cabinet) and is especially on high alert for anything it's categorised as high risk (learnt stressors). The referencing is so quick and automatic that from the point at which you encounter a stressor your emotional reaction is between 4-7 seconds after, enabling you sufficient time to react in a way that ensure you are safe, and in accordance with your internal model of the world - i.e. your comfort zone!

So the main cause of the stress is not from what happens to us - the external factors i.e. money, family, health etc. but how we as individuals automatically interpret and respond to these external factors based on our internal model of the world - the internal factors i.e. our values, beliefs, memories and decisions.

Stress is not what happens to you, but how you react. Hans Selye

How does being in a stressed state affect us?

Now that we know the main cause of our stress, the next step is to increase our level of self awareness, enabling us to spot the signs of stress.

Hungarian doctor and biochemist Hans Selye (1907-1982) was the first person to research stress after he observed numerous patients with various chronic illnesses who all appeared to display a common set of symptoms. It was through his research that he went on to develop the theory for stress which he called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

Here are the three different physiological stages of GAS which is what the body goes through in response to stress:

Alarm Reaction Stage

This is the 'flight, flight or freeze' stage when the body first experiences a state of stress. It's a natural reaction of our brain as it signals the body to prepare to protect itself from a perceived dangerous situation - which can just be something like a meeting with our boss for a review, starting a new job, planning for retirement etc. As the perceived danger is not just physical it's also psychological - so can include any situations where we may potentially be rejected or have uncertainty via a change for example.

Our heart rate and blood pressure will increase, our adrenal glands release cortisol (a stress hormone) and we receive a boost of adrenaline to increase our energy, in addition to many other changes to prepare for our safety and survival.

Resistance Stage

Once the initial stage is over the body naturally goes into repair mode and reduces cortisol to help our body to calm down, and when our mind registers we have safely overcome the perceived stressful situation, our body will continue to repair itself until our hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure etc. are all back to normal.

However, if a perceived stressful situation continues for an extended period of time, then our mind and body remain on high alert and eventually learns to adapt how to live at this higher state of stress. It will continue to secrete the stress hormones which keeps blood pressure elevated, causing inflammation, disrupting digestive processes and affecting how we think with poor levels of concentration (brain fog), and we will likely experience increased low moods such as frustration and irritability etc.

So whilst our body has adapted to the extended period of stress leading us to feel we're managing stress well, our body’s physical response will be signalling a different story. If these signals are ignored and this resistance stage continues for too long, without pauses to offset the effects of stress, this can lead to the exhaustion stage.

Exhaustion Stage

After prolonged or chronic stress our body will reach a point where it physically no longer has the strength to maintain a constant stressed state.

At this point we may feel hopeless and totally overwhelmed, with high levels of fatigue, depression, anxiety and eventually we reach burn out as we can no longer tolerate any additional perceived stressful situations, and our immune system will now be weakened leaving us at high risk of illnesses.

Not all stress has a negative effect

After Selye published his stress theory he then went on to review the research conducted by Lenard Levi in 1971, who discovered stress had positive and negative reactions. So Selye then came up with two new terms (below) in his book Stress Without Distress (1974).


  • Eustress is the term Selye used for positive stress, which is when we feel a pressure alongside excitement or anticipation of success when handling a challenging situation, such as passing a driving test. The sense of achievement, pride and joy felt after completing the goal/overcoming the challenge, causes the release of feel good hormones into the body.

  • Distress is the term Selye used for negative stress, which is when you feel pressure and overwhelm because you perceive (internal model) that you're not able (physically, mentally, emotionally) to meet the demands or adapt effectively to a situation.

  • An example would be: you begin to work long hours in you job as you want to make a good impression - this comes from a belief that you need others approval (based on low self worth memories from your past). The long hours become the norm and are now expected by your boss, but through constantly working long hours you have little time to recover and relax you end up feeling stressed. Eventually you can't cope with the pressure of the job any more and either become ill or leave.

It can be hard to acknowledge that the stress we experience in most situations is down to our own internal model based on values, beliefs, memories and decisions from our past, which have formed who we are today and how we experience our life. The good news though is that this internal model can be changed.

Neuro science has confirmed that the neurological filtering process that created our current internal model of the world, can in fact be neurologically rewired when we begin to change how we think, behave and act.

They call it neuroplasticity and with repetition of new thinking, behaviours and actions we can neurologically rewire a new internal model of the world. One that we consciously choose for ourselves to create a more fulfilling life experience - which is what I refer to as authentic wellbeing! As it's living a life aligned to what's really important to us as individuals after breaking free from any past values, beliefs, memories or decisions that no longer serve us, enabling us to reduce distress and make the most of our life experience.

Watch this short video by Dr Joe Dispenza who is a leader in this field of work and has written many books about how our mind works based on many years of research, it's really fascinating to watch how new neural networks are formed in our mind when we change the way we think. As when we change the way we think, we change how we feel, which then creates new behaviours that change our results in life.

So how can we create a new internal model to reduce distress?

Living at cause

Have you come across the term 'being at cause' or 'being at effect'?

If you haven't, below is an overview of the main differences for someone being at cause or at effect and the impact this has on their life experience. As whilst everyone's internal model of the world is different, these two generalised approaches to life are common, so see what resonates most for you:

Living at effect

This is when a person believes they are a victim of circumstance, they feel everything happens 'to them' instead of 'for them' so they feel they have little control over their life, and live in survival mode reacting to life circumstances.

Common signs are:

  • blaming others or circumstances for 'putting' them in a bad mood or to explain why they haven't achieved something in their life; and

  • playing the 'if, when, then, if only' game to explain why they feel the way you do, or why they can't do or have something, such as "if my parents praised me more as a child then I would have achieved more success in my life."

What they're really communicating is they feel powerless in their life and will likely often state how stressed they feel, and how unable they feel to cope with life circumstances.

It's also likely that they depend on others to feel good about themselves or about their life, using phrases like "if only my partner, my boss, my colleague, my parents, my children... understood me/helped me/did what I wanted, then life would be better."

Unfortunately they can experience high levels of distress waiting and hoping for things to be different, or for someone to help fix them, or provide them with what they need to get out of a rut and become unstuck. As they believe that external factors are responsible for their happiness and wellbeing, but in reality it just gives others more control over them.

Living at cause

This is when a person believes they are responsible for creating what they want to experience and achieve in their life, so they look for opportunities and feel empowered to take action to make things happen.

They are decisive and committed as they know what they want and need to do to move forward, and if things don't turn out as they plan/would like they reflect on the learnings, adapt and explore other possibilities to keep moving forward and evolving as a person.

They take responsibility for creating most of the circumstances in their life and are self sufficient, knowing their happiness and wellbeing is primarily down to them. As a result they feel more able to cope with any change and challenges in their life as they know that they have a choice on how they wish to respond as they belief that life happens for them, so they thrive and experience more fulfilment in their life.

Self Awareness

As you can see there is a big difference between the way these people live their lives and the level of stress they will be experiencing, and it's primarily based on their internal model of the world. The question therefore is, what does your internal model of the world look like? What resonated for you reading this blog post and gave you some insights?

To get started here are some good signposts to move towards being more at cause:

  • What stories/reasons do you tell yourself about why you haven't done something, or can't do something?

  • Consider any times you have prefixed reasons with 'if, but, when, then' to explain why and consider whether the activities are important to you, if so look at what small action steps you can take towards them. As by keeping actions small you reduce the perceived level of stress in your current internal model - you go under the radar of your subconscious mind!

  • What physical symptoms are you experiencing as a result of stress?

  • E.G. Regular short illnesses like coughs and colds, suffering with regular digestive issues, foggy head etc. Notice what happens when these symptoms occur - what were the circumstances, what were your thoughts? Look at ways you can change the circumstance and/or the thoughts you have, so next time you choose your response to reduce stress. Think of rewiring new thoughts in challenging situations like learning a new skill - it's uncomfortable at first and doesn't come naturally, but eventually you do it automatically!

  • What areas in your life have you identified you feel unfulfilled ?

  • Get clear as to why and what the ideal situation looks like, then you can look at the steps you need to take to bridge the gap to improve these areas. Depending on the situation you can get others involved to support the changes if desired, and this can really help with accountability.

The main thing to remember is to be compassionate with ourselves and avoid any self judgement, as a fact of life is that there will always be change, so we will always need to adapt, learn and evolve. Everyone is always going through some level of change and no-one is perfect, so we need to stay in our own lane and focus on the changes we want to create in our life. Being patient with ourselves as we make changes to our internal model through repetition of new thoughts and habits. I would highly recommend the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to support this process.

Redefining stress to support mental wellbeing

Lastly I wanted to finish off with how we define stress, because if we continue to believe that the main cause of stress is just based on external factors, then we are disempowering ourselves as these can often be outside of our control. However, we do have control over our internal model of the world and by changing how we define stress it will help us to choose a better response.

So instead of using the common definition of stress: 'a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.'

I would like to share my definition of stress:

"A person's internal reaction to life circumstances based on their perceived ability to adapt to change and have control over their life."

I feel this definition more clearly:

  • Communicates that stress is a personal experience, so in order to best understand and support someone we need to meet them where they are.

  • Outlines that the main cause of stress is not what happens to us but how we 'react' to life circumstances, which is far more empowering.

  • Helps us focus on solutions within our control to reduce distress, by increasing our self awareness with/without support in order to change any aspects of our internal model that's no longer serving us.


Depending on the level of stress someone is experiencing in their life and where their mental health is in terms of how they feel able to cope with their life. It maybe that they need some support to go through the process of self awareness to help them gain insights into new ways of thinking and perceiving situations, as our subconscious processes are so automatic we all have blind spots. Which is why talking things through with someone we trust such as a friend, family member, colleague, teacher etc. can really help.

This is also where professional support can be of real help depending where someone is with their mental health. As if someone is in the early stages of struggling to cope with day to day circumstances and feel stuck in a rut, then someone like myself as a wellbeing coach can help, by providing compassionate space for them to gain insights and create a plan to move forward. Whereas, someone who is suffering from severe depression and anxiety should seek the support of a trained therapist or counsellor to help them recover before they can move forward.

We can't solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them - Albert Einstein

I hope that this blog has given you a more empowered view on stress, please share your insights in the comments, and feel free to share with others who may benefit.

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