Mental Well-being

Where does stress come from?

When I was onsite at the Mayo Clinic for my wellness coaching training, we participated in a powerful session on resilience and stress management. As a self-professed “stress bunny” from a previous period of time in my life, I was anxious to soak up every word of our session. Stress is one of the most talked about challenges in our culture. While we often talk about how to manage it, I do not think there is much of an emphasis on the source of it. Sure a stressful day at work, a disagreement with a friend or family member, or an unanticipated bill are obvious examples, but what is the real source of stress, from a neurological or science perspective?

Dr. Amit Sood is a household name around the Mayo Clinic for his work in stress management and resilience. He wrote the Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living. He introduced the concept that stress comes from three primary sources:

  • A lack of control
  • A lack of meaning
  • A gap in demand vs. resources

This simple concept was revolutionary to me. The demand versus resources challenge is all too familiar to many people particularly when it comes to commodities like time and money. But a lack of control and a lack of meaning…wow, that was powerful and rang very true for periods of time when my own personal stress has been at an all-time high.

Furthermore, he states that a source of disappointment, frustration, or stress comes from a gap between expectations and reality. For example, you expect that a specific chore or task will take you 30 minutes and it actually takes 75 minutes. That extra time causes you to be late to an event/be unable to complete another task/etc. and stress ensues. Does this sound familiar?

Neurologically speaking, there are some very specific reasons for the things that create stress  such as long workdays, a list of chores and tasks that runs through the mind, multi-tasking our way through the day, etc. Consider two types of brain activity – focused mode and default mode. Focused mode can best be described as a time when you are singularly focused on a task or experience like catching up with an old friend over coffee. Default mode is the background activity and thoughts that happen without conscious attention. Have you ever driven somewhere and not consciously thought of the turns needed to get there? That’s a good example of default mode. A large-scale study showed that wandering minds (think: default mode) tended more towards negative thoughts. Additionally, what people were thinking as compared to what they were doing had a greater influence on reported happiness. Let that sink in for a moment – thoughts were more important than activity when considering personal happiness.

Dr. Sood speaks to scheduling time for worrying and actively working to not allow worries to invade your brain space outside of the scheduled time. “[In] my experience, if I’m disciplined about scheduling a worry time, then I don’t go as deep into my open files when they bubble up at random times. I stop feeding my default mode, and my mind is freed up to practice joyful attention.” I thought about this concept as though I’m partitioning off worries from the rest of my daily life.

In terms of working to minimize stress or better anticipate it, a simple set of questions can help you work through it and be more aware of it.

  • Where is my stress coming from?
  • What am I telling myself when I am stressed? Is what I am telling myself true or real?
  • How important is this stressor, really? Will it matter 5 years from now?
  • What can I do to change the situation?
  • What choice do I have in my response?

My take away from these observations about stress and the brain’s default mode is that mismanaged expectations and a lack of conscious attention to daily life can wreak havoc on our daily tasks, actions, and thoughts. Optimism coupled with a realistic approach can help yield a smaller gap between expectations and reality. Taking opportunities to truly be present in our daily lives matters whether that’s at an important but mentally taxing meeting at work, making dinner with our spouse after a tiring day, or reading to your child before their bedtime.

What are your favorite tips and tools for managing stress in your life?
Be well,

Killingsworth and Gilbert. A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science: 12 Nov 2010.

More references on stress management:
“A Very Happy Brain” video from Dr. Amit Sood
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonagal
The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living by Dr. Amit Sood

2 thoughts on “Where does stress come from?”

  1. I am currently undergoing the training program to learn transcendental meditation, and even after a few days, I already feel less of the stress and anxiety that comes with owning a small business, with putting aside pennies for my daughter’s college fund, with adding to my retirement (and retail) accounts), etc. Mayo has actually endorsed different forms of meditation (including TM) as a means to relieve stress, and since I am in my first Monday since starting my TM, I can attest that Mayo is correct. Mondays are usually a whirlwind, but I’ve been at it for a few hours now and can say that I’m just taking things as they come. Pretty nice feeling.


    1. Meditation is an incredibly useful tool for stress management. You know it’s entered the mainstream when there are multiple mobile apps to help you develop a practice! 🙂 So glad that you have found a technique that helps you manage the chaos of life.


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