Meaning and Causes of Social Stress

Meaning and Causes of Social Stress

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Humans are social beings by nature, as they typically have a fundamental need and desire to maintain positive social relationships. Thus, they usually find maintaining positive social ties to be beneficial. Social relationships can offer nurturance, foster feelings of social inclusion, and lead to reproductive success. Anything that disrupts or threatens to disrupt their relationships with others can result in social stress.

This can include low social status in society or in particular groups, giving a speech, interviewing with potential employers, caring for a child or spouse with a chronic illness, meeting new people at a party, the threat of or actual death of a loved one, divorce, and discrimination. Social stress can arise from one’s micro-environment (e.g., family ties) and macro-environment (e.g., hierarchical societal structure). Social stress is typically the most frequent type of stressor that people experience in their daily lives and affects people more intensely than other types of stressors.

Meaning and Causes of Social Stress

Social stress is stress that stems from one’s relationships with others and from the social environment in general. Based on the appraisal theory of emotion, stress arises when a person evaluates a situation as personally relevant and perceives that they do not have the resources to cope or handle the specific situation. An event which exceeds the ability to cope does not necessarily have to occur in order for one to experience stress, as the threat of such an event occurring can be sufficient.

What is social stress?

Wadman, Durkin, and Conti-Ramsden (2011) defined social stress as “the feelings of discomfort or anxiety that individuals may experience in social situations, and the associated tendency to avoid potentially stressful social situations.

Social stress is stress that results from relationships with others and a person’s social environment. When people experience too much social stress, they might feel symptoms such as headaches, rapid heart rate, dizziness, a tight feeling in the lungs, depression, and severe anxiety. For many, it’s a stress that seems to never be relieved, and the symptoms just seem to become a part of life.

 Causes of Social Stress

According to Aneshensel, C. S., Rutter, C. M., & Lachenbruch, P. A. (1991) the authors list the causes of social stress thus:

  • Mental health

Research has consistently demonstrated that social stress increases risk for developing negative mental health outcomes. One prospective study asked over fifteen hundred Finnish employees whether they had “considerable difficulties with [their] coworkers/superiors/inferiors during the last 6 months, 5 years, earlier, or never”.

Information on suicides, hospitalizations due to psychosis, suicidal behavior, alcohol intoxication, depressive symptoms, and medication for chronic psychiatric disorders was then gathered from the national registries of mortality and morbidity. Those who had experienced conflict in the workplace with coworkers or supervisors in the last five years were more likely to be diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.

  • Depression

Risk for developing clinical depression significantly increases after experiencing social stress; depressed individuals often experience interpersonal loss before becoming depressed. One study found that depressed individuals who had been rejected by others had developed depression about three times more quickly than those who had experienced stress not involving social rejection.

In non-clinically depressed populations, people with friends and family who make too many demands, criticize, and create tension and conflict tend to have more depressive symptoms. Conflict between spouses leads to more psychological distress and depressive symptoms, especially for wives.

Meaning and Causes of Social Stress

In particular, unhappy married couples are 10–25 times more at risk for developing clinical depression. Similarly, social stress arising from discrimination is related to greater depressive symptoms.[39][50] In one study, African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites reported on their daily experiences of discrimination and depressive symptoms. Regardless of race, those who perceived more discrimination had higher depressive symptoms.

  • Anxiety

The biological basis for anxiety disorders is rooted in the consistent activation of the stress response. Fear, which is the defining emotion of an anxiety disorder, occurs when someone perceives a situation (a stressor) as threatening. This activates the stress response.

If a person has difficulty regulating this stress response, it may activate inappropriately. Stress can therefore arise when a real stressor is not present or when something isn’t actually threatening. This can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder (panic attacks, social anxiety, OCD, etc.). Social anxiety disorder is defined as the fear of being judged or evaluated by others, even if no such threat is actually present.

Research shows a connection between social stress, such as traumatic life events and chronic strains, and the development of anxiety disorders. A study that examined a subpopulation of adults, both young and middle-age, found that those who had diagnosed panic disorder in adulthood also experienced sexual abuse during childhood.

Children who experience social stressors, such as physical and psychological abuse, as well as parental loss, are also more at risk for developing anxiety disorders during adulthood than children who did not experience such stressors.

  • Long-term effects

Social stress occurring early in life can have psychopathological effects that develop or persist in adulthood. One longitudinal study found that children were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder (e.g. anxiety, depressive, disruptive, personality, and substance use disorders) in late adolescence and early adulthood when their parents showed more maladaptive child-rearing behaviors (e.g., loud arguments between parents, verbal abuse, difficulty controlling anger toward the child, lack of parental support or availability, and harsh punishment).

Child temperament and parental psychiatric disorders did not explain this association.[58] Other studies have documented the robust relationships between children’s social stress within the family environment and depression, aggression, antisocial behavior, anxiety, suicide, and hostile, oppositional, and delinquent behavior.

Meaning and Causes of Social Stress

  • Relapse and recurrence

Social stress can also exacerbate current psychopathological conditions and compromise recovery. For instance, patients recovering from depression or bipolar disorder are two times more likely to relapse if there is familial tension.

People with eating disorders are also more likely to relapse if their family members make more critical comments, are more hostile, or are over-involved. Similarly, outpatients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder show greater psychotic symptoms if the most influential person in their life is critical and are more likely to relapse if their familial relationships are marked by tension.

In regard to substance abuse, cocaine-dependent individuals report greater cravings for cocaine following exposure to a social stressor. Traumatic life events and social stressors can also trigger the exacerbation of the symptoms of mental health disorders. Socially phobic children who experience a stressful event can become even more avoidant and socially inactive

  • Mortality

Social status, a macro-social stressor, is a robust predictor of death. In a study of over 1700 British civil servants, socioeconomic status (SES) was inversely related to mortality. Those with the lowest SES have worse health outcomes and greater mortality rates than those with the greatest SES.

Other studies have replicated this relationship between SES and mortality in a range of diseases, including infectious, digestive, and respiratory diseases. A study examining the link between SES and mortality in the elderly found that education level, household income, and occupational prestige were all related to lower mortality in men. In women, however, only household income was related to lower mortality.

  • Morbidity

Social stress also makes people more sick. People who have fewer social contacts are at greater risk for developing illness, including cardiovascular disease. The lower one’s social status, the more likely he or she is to have a cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, pulmonary, renal, or other chronic diseases. These links are not explained by other, more traditional risk factors such as race, health behaviors, age, sex, or access to health care.

  • Long-term effects

Exposure to social stress in childhood can also have long-term effects, increasing risk for developing diseases later in life. In particular, adults who were maltreated (emotionally, physically, sexually abused or neglected) as children report more disease outcomes, such as stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and hypertension or greater severity of those outcomes.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE), which includes over seventeen thousand adults, also found that there was a 20% increase in likelihood for experiencing heart disease for each kind of chronic familial social stressor experienced in childhood, and this was not due to typical risk factors for heart disease such as demographics, smoking, exercise, adiposity, diabetes, or hypertension.

Possible Solution to Social Stress

One of such ways would be to talk to those close to you. Fix broken relationships through communication. Talking about your social anxiety to a close peer, or just using communication to fix a healthy relationship are ways in which one can relieve some stresses.

Another way in which one may relieve some emotional stresses would be to rid oneself of toxic relationships. These are relationships that deteriorate one’s mental state and cause excessive and unnecessary strain on one’s mental and emotional state. Ridding oneself of these relationships may allow one to have a lighter and more stress free mental state.


 In conclusion, Social stress is one mental illness that cannot be cured with something as easy as a substance. It is one such that requires true effort and strength to relieve. But relief is attainable, as long as one agrees to open up and show true determination to achieve relief. In most cases, it can lead to death which in our society we sometimes blame it on evil ghost.


Aneshensel, C. S., Rutter, C. M., & Lachenbruch, P. A. (1991). Social structure, stress, and mental health.American Sociological Review,56, 166–179.

Aneshensel, Carol S. 1992. Social stress: Theory and research.Annual Review of Sociology 18: 15–38.

Aneshensel, C. S. (1996). The consequences of psychosocial stress: The universe of stress outcomes. In H. B. Kaplan (Ed.),Psychosocial stress: Perspectives on structure, theory, life-course, and methods (pp. 111–136 ). New York: Academic Press

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