Feeling Overwhelmed? Try to Identify Your External vs. Internal Sources of Stress

Stress is a normal and inevitable part of life. It is a natural response to the demands and challenges we face in our daily lives. The key is to learn how to manage stress so that it does not become overwhelming or chronic. To manage stress effectively, it’s helpful to identify the sources of our stress so that we can directly tackle the root causes.

Sometimes it’s easy to identify what is causing us to feel stressed whereas other times it can be a bit more complicated to pinpoint exactly where our stress is coming from. We often experience stress from multiple sources at the same time and it can be challenging to identify which stressor is causing the most significant impact on our well-being. In addition, stress is often accompanied by complex emotions, such as anxiety, frustration, and anger. It can be challenging to untangle these emotions and identify the specific source of stress that is causing them.

It’s helpful to slow down, create space for reflection, and truly think about the experiences in life that contribute most significantly to our feelings of overwhelm. It’s also helpful to determine whether our stress is external or internal, as the way that we cope with each type may be different.


For example, external causes of stress may include:

  • Major Life Changes – moving to a new city or starting a new job.
  • Grieving a Loss – experiencing the death of a loved one.
  • Relationship Challenges – going through a breakup or disagreeing with a family member.
  • Employment Difficulties – losing a job or being criticized by a colleague.
  • Too Many Social Commitments – feeling overwhelmed by your calendar or having no time for yourself.
  • Day-To-Day Inconveniences – getting a speeding ticket, spilling coffee, etc.


While internal causes of stress may include:

  • Persistent Negative Thinking – feeling consumed by negative thoughts or pessimistic ideas.
  • Disqualifying the Positives in Life – always focusing on mistakes and ignoring your successes.
  • Inability to Tolerate Uncertainty – feeling unable to relax when there is ambiguity or when things feel cloudy.
  • Highly Rigid Thinking / Lack of Flexibility – not being able to “go with the flow” or being overly upset when plans change.
  • Negative Self-Talk / Lack of Self-Esteem – feeling as though you are less than others, ignoring your own needs, or believing that others won’t like you.
  • Unrealistic Expectations of Self and Others – putting too much pressure on yourself or demanding unreasonable things of other people.
  • Holding an “All-Or-Nothing” Mindset – viewing situations or people as either all good vs. all bad and having difficulty acknowledging the gray areas in life.
  • Maintaining Constant Perfectionism – feeling unable to relax unless things are absolutely perfect, which is impossible to achieve, leading to constant disappointment.
  • Quickly Jumping to Conclusions – making assumptions or decisions without having all the information, leading to negative outcomes.
  • Blaming Others or Making “Should” Statements – focusing on what could have been different rather than accepting the given circumstances.


It’s important to recognize that both external and internal stress can be interrelated and can impact each other. For example, external stressors such as work pressure can trigger internal stressors such as self-doubt or anxiety, and internal stressors such as negative self-talk can make it more difficult to cope with external stressors.

In addition, internal stress often requires cognitive-behavioral coping strategies, such as identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, redirecting one’s own behaviors, unlearning maladaptive beliefs, or healing from trauma. On the other hand, external stress may require different coping strategies, such as problem-solving, using resources in one’s community, time management skills, communication skills, setting boundaries, or following routines.

For all types of stress, it’s helpful to talk openly about your experiences, ask for help when needed, and practice good self-care. Remember that you deserve to feel better. You deserve to live a life free from the burden of chronic stress. Life can be overwhelming at times, but stress can be managed so that it doesn’t become a persistent problem. Focus on identifying your sources of stress, determine what you can control, find what works best for your mental health, and talk to a professional if you’re feeling stuck. At River Oaks Psychology, we would be honored to help you in enhancing your stress management skills. You matter, you’re never alone, and we really care about you.

Written by Lauren Presutti

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