Recognizing Causes of Stress
February 28, 2018

“A man is forced to make impossible choices among those desires.”
Christopher Alexander, A Timeless Way of Building

My wife and I were recently reflecting on a problem. There is so much visiting and hosting that we would like to do, and so little time in which to do it. We started to feel stressed just thinking about it.

So my mind turned to the broader issue of stress in our lives today, and I remembered a remarkable passage in The Timeless Way of Building wherein Christopher Alexander writes about contexts that are intrinsically stress inducing. Why are some contexts—even including architectural patterns—stress-inducing? Because they put fundamental goods of our life in unhealthy and often unnecessary competition with one another.

It was as though a light-bulb went off in my head. Often precious goods in our lives are forced into at least seemingly irreconcilable opposition. And we experience great stress.

One of Alexander’s powerful examples is the location of a man’s place of employment. Usually geographically remote from his home, the location of his work creates an inner tension between work-time and home-time, when it need not have been so.

It seems to me that there are many other examples of such stress-inducing contexts that have become common today—so common that we assume that they represent the ‘ordinary’ stress of human life. Of course there is a certain amount of ordinary stress that comes of unavoidable collisions of things we naturally desire. For instance, travelling to see relatives will always involve a trade-off between the good of being at home and the good of seeing family.

But then again, this very example points to how the contexts that we construct in society by a whole matrix of decisions we have made as a community and as individuals can greatly, and often unnaturally, amplify such causes of stress. It used to be that relatives tended to live near one another. As a society, we do not put a premium on such proximity, but rather on other things, and so a whole set of entrenched factors militate against being near our relatives.

So now the stress of separation from family and the neighbors we grew up with has become a normal part of our lives. And at times it is a significant, painful, normal part of our lives.

Please understand: my point here is not to make a comparison of stress in the ‘old days’ versus stress now. If I were doing so, then someone might point out: “Weren’t there some stresses then we don’t have now?” The answer of course would be affirmative. But this is a distraction from the point at hand. I propose that we take an honest look at stress-inducing contexts in our lives today, and then ask what we can reasonably do about them. Some of these contexts can be very individualized and even self-caused. The ones in which I am interested now are the ones that tend to be endemic to the common patterns of living today. A list might include breakdown of community, disconnection from the earth, isolation from family, travel and traffic, the pres of instant and constant communication, centrifugal forces in the home, lack of silence, multitudes of bills, sequestering of the elderly, anonymity and depersonalization in market and business contexts, to name a few.

The point is not to carp or dwell on problems. It seems to me, on the contrary, that recognizing the reasons for certain common stresses can be very freeing—simply in the realization of the problem, and in the realization that we are not alone or necessarily at fault. But even more, to recognize such contexts for what they are opens at least the possibility of our addressing the problems, and ameliorating if not removing their negative effects.

Over the next few weeks I plan to reflect upon specific, common stress-inducing causes and contexts. If there are any that come to your mind, which you might want to be considered in this series, do not hesitate to use the ‘contact’ button to send me a suggestion.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language. You can click on his name in the “Tag Cloud” on my home page, or here, to find other Wednesday quotes from him.

Leave a Reply


  1. Great idea for a theme! It’s certainly applicable to many of us…

  2. A great topic and I look forward to more posts on this and maybe a book? Thanks fir introducing me to Christoper Alexander. Art Bennett

    1. You’re very welcome, Art. All best to you.

  3. I think about this often. So many stressful situations in our life build upon each other. Think alone of all the interconnected stresses with working away from home… The stress of wasted time sitting in traffic, the money spent on fuel, vehicles, insurance, etc. The simple things around the house we cannot do simply because we are busy somewhere else making money. Instead of saving thousands of dollars building my own barn, which is also something I would also enjoy doing and would love to pour my own efforts into, I work 50 hours a week somewhere else, doing unrelated tasks, to pay someone else to build my barn. That is a real conflict I am currently experiencing.

    Another work related stress I find interesting and would like to look more deeply at is the lack of fluidity of periods of employment and unemployment. This sounds crazy to the modern person – we should never be unemployed; but taking a quick look at history tells a different story. People did not work 40 year careers without taking extended time off and intermissions in their employment. Travel could be undertaken once enough was saved up, and then you could go back home and work once again. Today we take a few short weeks but always must return. There is rarely a ‘downseason’. Our employers have us trapped into long careers by incentives and by the difficulty of finding work if we were to take long periods off. What really traps us in this is our monthly bills. Nearly everything we purchase includes an obligation to work for a certain amount of months – home mortgage, cars, insurance payments, utilities, phone plans, health care, etc. In simpler times without this nearly universal debt one could be employed and save, but also choose at times to not be employed, living simply while traveling or in a more self sustainable/self employed fashion.

    1. Sean, You raise great points here. I think that the almost universal situation of us men having to work remotely from our homes with little intermission and little time to invest in our households is a central issue of our times. We need to continue to reflect together on ways to address this situation.

  4. ” For instance, travelling to see relatives will always involve a trade-off between the good of being at home and the good of seeing family.
    [ . . . ] It used to be that relatives tended to live near one another.”

    For some people, being near relatives can create MORE stress.

    1. Mike, Good to hear from you. Though perhaps you mean this somewhat in jest, you of course raise a real issue. It might lead us to consider whether there are certain stresses that in some sense are simply supposed to be…

      1. Mike may mean it in jest, but I do not… There is the stress brought by divorce and parents rebuilding their lives: once the children grow up and have families of their own, the ills of divorce raise their heads all over again, in the painful awkwardness of a thousand situations, in the nagging questions in your head: are we really still a family? Do I count? Do my parents ever think of each other? Not every family with divorce in its history ends up this bad, but enough of them do…

        Then there is a different kind of stress that comes from being near relatives: the parent who’s never happy with the lives of his/her children, who always finds fault, things to correct, even when the children are grown, responsible, decent persons who have good answers to defend the choices they made. The sibling who thinks he/she knows best, and tears everyone down. How ugly families can be, how difficult it is to discern how to defeat the ugliness, and how tempting it is to want to stay away as a way to maintain interior peace…

        Thank you for dedicating your thoughts and attention to this, Professor!

  5. Great topic – how about this one I have thought much about:

    As a teenager, the educational system encouraged me to think of a career as the primary route to happiness and fullfillment in life… and that you should choose this career based solely on your academic interests. No one ever suggested to me that someone might want to choose a career based on, say, the likelihood of making a reasonable living in the town in which I grew up. Everyone simply assumed that the best path was “up and out”.

    Now having grown up, and having kids, I realize we forgo so many other goods in this pursuit of career at all costs: proximity to family (grandparents, cousins), and other people with whom we have long-standing relationships.

    1. Kevin, Oh so true. That’s a great one. Thanks.

  6. Great topic! Can I suggest being a part of the”sandwich” generation with aging parents and young grandchildren to love and serve? Thank you for addressing these issues.

    1. Thanks Linda. Absolutely. I’d love to hear a little more at some point some of the main challenges in your experience.

  7. Oh Dr. Cuddeback! What a great topic! I am currently surrounded by a flock of little people, and children and discipline is very stressful to me- trying to find the right balance between between too strict and permissive.

    1. What a great issue you raise Mary!–one that is very close to my heart, as I suppose it really must be for all parents. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help, but I do pledge to include this in the upcoming weeks. Thank you much for saying this.

  8. I enjoyed your postings. When thinking about stress, I find the news is stressful as to be news, it seems it must be negative. The news on tv always throws in a good story to end on a pleasant note but this has little to do with the stress you are filled with in the 30-60 minutes of negative news. One needs to be informed and there doesn’t seem to be any other way. Of course, today one can receive these stressors instantly due to technology. Being a Catholic and hearing the negative news, it makes me think, we as a society are becoming more & more like the Roman Empire and that didn’t end well. However, I keep reminding myself what my father used to tell me. “Most people are good, otherwise, we would not be able to live in our society”.

    1. Marie,
      Your point about the news is so true! But I would add that sometimes we don’t actually have to stay very informed. I once followed the advice of the late Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars (okay, I’ve many times followed his advice, but re. the news, I mean) and cut out my listening to news. The only thing that changed in the world was that I was less stressed! And then going to Mass would fill in the gaps – invariably if there is big news, the priest will bring it up sooner or later in his homily. Then we were in a great position to pray for those who needed our prayers. Just a thought…

      Your article is wonderful and I too look forward to reading what you write next! Meanwhile your picture (of traffic in the rear view mirror) says it all! Praise God for those of us who don’t have to commute to work! And may the angels accompany those who do…Perhaps a suggestion for those inevitable car rides: soothing music or fun music (something to calm our souls and fill them with beauty or something to sing along with) or books on tape – these seem to redeem the time for me. Thanks for the thoughts!

      1. And thank you Suzie,and Marie! I’m really struggling with the news things too…
        At least one stress I don’t have very much of here in the Shenandoah Valley is traffic…

  9. Dr. Cuddeback, I appreciate your latest article and I am excited to read the next installments. One stress that seems particularly common that came to mind as I read your line about “precious goods in irreconcilable opposition,” is the struggle of being a working mother – a struggle of the heart between wanting to be home with your children and the need to provide for them. When you said, “It seems to me, on the contrary, that recognizing the reasons for certain common stresses can be very freeing—simply in the realization of the problem, and in the realization that we are not alone or necessarily at fault,” I thought about an online group I recently found for Catholic Working Mothers. Your point struck me because, even though its only an online support group, its very existence made me feel so much less alone realizing other women are packing lunches until the late evening hours; like me, they worry about the the slightest runny nose – knowing if their child is sick they might not be able to stay at home the next day; they know the rawness of having their heart split in two. They know what it is like to be up with the baby all night, go to work for 8 or 9 hours, and then need to come home to make dinner, do dishes, wash laundry, set everyone up for the next day, be attentive to their husband’s needs, all while trying to fill their children’s ‘love tanks’ in a fraction of the time needed by reading books, telling stories, singing songs, and creating a faith-filled, joyful home. We do our best to have everyone sit down around the dinner table to hold onto, for a moment, what ” the home” used to be. It is very unnatural indeed to leave ones children. Some women might prefer a working career, but many of us must work in order to provide income for our families. This is a stress that many women have in the modern world. Two precious goods – the emotional and physical needs of your children – put in apparent opposition. So what do we do? We pray, if we are married, that our husbands find better jobs, we search out and interview teachers in home daycares and schools where we know our children will be nurtured and cared for during the day, we hold onto them tight at night, we pray the neccesity to work doesn’t scar them and that they know how much they are loved even when we can’t be present, and we hope one day society will put in place the means where two incomes aren’t needed as the “norm.” This is one example of a modern “stress” that is put on the family and my own musings. Your blog is such a blessing, by the way. I look forward to it, and for an instant, as I read, I am back in your classroom, wondering at trees; it makes me pause and think of higher things for a moment before life goes rushing on. Thank you for that gift!

    1. Angela, Thank you so much for sharing this! I am deeply moved by your account. I am going to take this to heart, and I hope that I, and perhaps others, might be able to offer some thoughts in the coming weeks that might help lighten the load for you. But you have already taught me something by what you have shared here. Thank you again.

  10. You refer to “unintended stress”, of course. Remember Helen Hayes said something to the effect that “If we had no stress in our lives it would mean we were dead”.

    1. You make a nice point. Christopher Alexander too notes that there are some stresses that are ‘natural’ in a sense,and are part of the normal course of life. We need to be able to see the difference between these, and then on the other hand those that tend to tear us down and simply wear us out. I’m going to think about this more.

  11. My younger ones and I are listening to the audio book Little House on the Prairie. While listening I found my heart tugged by Pa’s joyful exuberance: “Here we have everything we need and we can all live like Kings!” The romance of the open prairie and the fiddle and the sunshine and the low hanging stars at night, with all the skills you need to create a life for your family….. why does that tug at one?
    YES I know one could point to separation from extended family, the very real chance of death and starving, and the lack of community and educational opportunities, etc. BUT that life appeals! To make less daily choices and those about simpler, more essential things…. I think of the phrases the “tyranny of too many choices” and “decision fatigue” and wonder how our lives would be without the stress of so. much. deciding that one can barely organize the decisions to be made in a hierarchy when they all seem urgent sometimes…

    I hope my thought is clear! Much love!
    —Mary T.

    1. Mary T., Oh you make yourself clear all right.”Tyranny of too many choices”–that’s a great line. I’ve been thinking about that recently especially as I watch my college students trying to decide what “to do in life.” So many don’t know where to start even to think about, in part because there are so many choices. And in sense, that problem of too many choices just keeps going in life.
      So what can we do about it? Great question. Let’s think about that a bit… Thanks so much for sharing this Mary! Love to you all.

  12. Good theme! I’ve been blessed and humble enough to be self employed working at home, raising kids with my wife including homeschooling for 20 years.
    We still battle stress and hope for relief.
    I believe the root cause of stress is that our imaginations are undisciplined. We desire. We compare. We imagine something better than what we have. All good, except when imagination presents incompatible or nearly incompatible goods and the intellect fails to properly understand the conflict soon enough. Our will is to commit to both, which may even work out for a time, given the energy that comes with the initial excitement of new goods. That success just delays our taking responsibility for a simple error arising from a limitation of the intellect. Pride in seeing things through keeps us faithful to our commitments, which is good, but also blinds us to the root cause, and instead we focus and blame poor performance as the cause of the stress. God is satisfied with our good intents and honest, meager efforts. We aren’t.

    1. Forrest, I think you make an excellent point. So often we have unreasonable expectations and/or unreasonable desires, and so we experience a stress that need not be there. Combating this will primarily involve an interior adjustment on our part–which can be very difficult!
      I think at the same time there are other stresses –or in any case stress-causing contexts–that are not fundamentally a matter of our interior attitude but rather a matter of objective exterior circumstances. And while addressing these does still very much include an interior attitude element, there is also an aspect of addressing the exterior circumstances themselves. We need to see the difference between these two kinds of circumstances, which brings to mind the traditional prayer about being able to discern the difference between what we can change and what we can’t…
      Thanks again for your very helpful insight.