Environmental Stressors

Perception, Levels of Tolerance, How to Cope

The Basics

WHAT: Understanding of what environmental stressors are, how they impact our mental health and how to cope with them in a stress-free way.

SOURCE: Crowding and Other Environmental Stressors, G.W. Evans, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001

  • Environmental Stress and Health, Guski, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001

GREAT FOR: Mental Health, Stress Management, Making Life Changes, Environmental Choices



Stress is the process by which environmental events of forces (stressors) threaten one’s well-being and by which our organism responds to this threat. Noise, pollution, crowd, all can be found in the environment and all are found to be our stressors. You can understand such environmental stress in terms of three factors:

  1. The physical stressor itself (e.g., pollution).
  2. The appraisal of the stressor (the extent to which you perceive such stressor threatening).
  3. The impact of the stressor on you (e.g., psychological impact).

These factors are important to consider and observe to what extent your environmental stressors are affecting you. We all have different tolerance levels. What is noisy for me can be just normal for you. This is why some people cannot stand living in a big city while others feel like fish in the water. 

Main Environmental Stressors

Here is the list of main environmental stressors and their impact on health and physiology, cognition and social behaviour to consider:

Cataclysmic Events

These are sudden types of catastrophes that affect many individuals at the same time. For instance, floods, major storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, nuclear or chemical plant accidents, and pandemic like COVID-19 are all this type of environmental stress

Stressful Life Events

Any major incident in life that requires major individual adaptive responses. This can be events like: major changes in work (losing a job or beginning a new job), residential environment (moving to a new area, city, country), major construction work in the present residential area. While such an event is usually short, the behavioural consequences may be long, or permanent.

Daily Hassles

These are repetitive aversive events of ordinary life, such as arguments with colleagues, crowded classrooms or daily traffic congestions on the way to work. Although they typically are more or less predictable and rather short they cause a lot of stress because we have very little means to avoid such hassles. 

In Crowding 

Studies show that when crowding increases our stress level increases too. Interestingly, it does not matter if a space is small or large but how much our personal space is limited. This limitation is the triggering factor, leading to feelings of frustration and irritability. Living in dense populations, not only causes a greater aggressive behaviour but also decreases our immunity to illness.

Ambient Stressors

This category is about all the continuous and intractable background characteristics of our physical environment, such as the continuous hum of the air conditioning, the permanent dust in an industrial area, and the faint hiss of the central heating system. They often go unnoticed and most people believe that they can adapt to ambient stressors. While we can live with them, these are still stressors causing tension in our body and mind. 

How to Cope?

Know That You Can Control It

Research implicates that there is at least one important component of stress reactions to an environmental stressor – lack of control. Stress effects decrease with increased control. What is even more interesting is that not only the actual lack of control but also the anticipated one is building our stress reaction. 

Studies proved that negative effects of noise were essentially eliminated if individuals believed they could shut off the noise with a switch. Just the perception of control was sufficient to ameliorate the harmful impacts of noise, regardless of whether people actually exercised the control option.

Examples of taking control:

  • Direct control (e.g., switching off the neighbour’s noisy lawn mover)
  • Indirect control (e.g., closing the windows in order to reduce the noise penetration)
  • Social control (e.g., calling authorities to stop the noise)
  • Cognitive control (e.g., knowing that the noise will stop in about an hour)

Focus Your Attention on The Problem

Problem-focused coping takes place when your efforts are all about directly addressing the problem. You shift away from the emotional attachment to the problem and focus on finding a solution. 

Focus Your Attention on Your Emotions

One example of emotion-focused coping is when you make effort to control your psychological response to the stressor. This time you do not focus on the problem but on your emotional reaction to the problem. It is your individual perception of the stressor that decides whether you will address the stressor and take action or you will tolerate the stressor. 

The Final Note – Adaptation 

The stress reaction commonly recognised as fear, anxiety, and anger is only part of the process in which our organism responds to environmental stressors threatening our well-being. The main attraction is perceiving a threat, coping with it and adapting to it. This adaptation sequence is almost a daily routine and it has far greater consequences than stress.

Repeated exposure to uncontrollable stimuli can reduce motivation in trying to control. This is caused by the belief that the outcomes of one’s actions are independent of those actions. A couple of examples of this are: 

  • Children chronically exposed to noise or to crowding are less likely to persist in their attempts to solve challenging puzzles.
  • Adults living under more crowded conditions adapt a withdrawal strategy in group game-playing scenarios surrounding. 

To conclude, we are exposed to environmental stressors on a daily basis and in order to minimize their negative impact on our mindset and well-being we want to pay close attention to how we perceive these stressors. Are we adapting and learning to tolerate leaving with them or are we taking control back and finding solutions to support our health?

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