Internal vs. External Stressors: What’s the Difference?

published on:

Updated on:


Note: Your support drives Find-A-Therapist. We earn a commission if you purchase services through our ads.

Looking for a therapist?

If you have stress overload, a quick online search will yield loads of stress management techniques. But not all stress is created equally. Internal and external stressors need to be handled in different ways.

Handling the stress of a speeding ticket would look much different from the way you’d work to improve your self-esteem. While both situations cause stress, the amount of control you have over each of them is very different.

A speeding ticket happens to you (external) while self-esteem is created by you (internal). To reduce the stress of receiving a speeding ticket, your only choice is to change your reaction.

To reduce the stress you feel from low self-esteem, you have internal power to change the way you view yourself altogether.

Simply put, internal stressors describe stress that happens within the mind while external stressors are events that happen in your surroundings. Identifying whether your stressors are mostly internal or external will guide you toward better stress control.

Explore emotional well-being with BetterHelp – your partner in affordable online therapy. With 30,000+ licensed therapists and plans starting from only $65 per week, BetterHelp makes self-care accessible to all. Complete the questionnaire to match with the right therapist.

Note: We collaborate with top-tier mental health companies and receive advertising fees from purchases through the BetterHelp links.

What’s So Bad About Stress?

When humans feel threatened by events, thoughts or feelings, their bodies undergo a physical stress response. This releases chemicals like cortisol that contribute to lowered physical and mental health.

Effects of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Chest pain
  • Sadness or depression
  • Eating problems
  • Risk for heart attack or stroke

The effects of stress are the same whether stress comes from internal or external sources. Negative effects build up over time, and if stress is a chronic problem, they lead to worsening health conditions.

If you experience constant stress, start by identifying the source and finding appropriate stress management practices to preserve your mental and physical health. Begin by asking yourself whether your stressors are coming from within or around you.

Internal Stressors

Internal stressors are made by your belief system and the way you evaluate yourself. When you have trouble meeting personal expectations, goals and visions, internal stress results.

Additionally, the way you think about life and the world around you impacts your stress levels. Sometimes, reality doesn’t match your belief system. Differences between reality and your expectations can be quite stressful.

Your everyday emotions can be internal stressors, as can mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Your thinking patterns can lead to detrimental stress buildup.

More examples of internal stressors:

  • Pessimistic attitude
  • Negative self-talk
  • Deep need to be perfect
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unhealthy standards for self

The only way to effectively handle internal stressors is to change your way of thinking. It might take a conversation with a friend or a therapist, lots of journal writing or finding an outlet in the arts to help remold your preconceptions.

Learning to handle internal stressors makes it much easier to handle external stressors, too. When you develop flexibility and coping strategies while alleviating internal stressors, you can apply these same skills to stressors caused by external sources.

External Stressors

External stressors are out of your control. These are stressful things that happen in your surroundings, your environment. From worldwide events to small car accidents, everyone experiences external stress daily.

The key difference between external and internal stressors is that external stressors are unlikely to be in your control. The only way to reduce the stress caused by external stressors is to change the way you react to the stressors. You control the effect it has on your life.

Examples of external stressors include:

  • Busy schedule
  • Work problems
  • Family issues
  • Financial trouble
  • Social problems
  • Injury
  • Unforeseen circumstances

External stressors range in severity and affect each person differently. A series of external stressors can add up to create massive stress levels, which threaten your health.

While you don’t have much control over external factors themselves, you do control your environment and the way you react to external events.

You can adjust your environment to reduce the likelihood of external stressors. And you can develop new ways of processing external stressors, such as practicing a technique called radical acceptance.

The key understanding you need about external stressors is that you can’t control most of them, but you can control the way you react. That’s why it’s best for you to first conquer your internal stressors–because you’ll have prepared your mind to better handle tough external stressors.

The Amount of Control You Have is Key 

It’s important to identify whether stressors are coming from an internal or external place so you can figure out whether or not they’re in your control. When you identify how much control you have over a situation, you can better manage the distress it causes.

It’s easier to control internal stressors, so begin by dealing with internal stressors. By relieving your internal stress, it will be easier to handle the external stressors that come at you each day. Plus, the techniques you use to eliminate internal stressors can be transferred to external stressors when you’re ready, helping eliminate more overall stress.

There are countless ways to handle both internal and external stressors, but here are a handful of tips to help you get started:

Tips for Handling Internal Stressors

  1. Journal. Keep track of your day-to-day experiences and record changes in your mood. You’ll begin to see patterns in the way you think, which is the first step in identifying and eliminating unhealthy internal responses.
  2. Therapy. Sometimes it takes a professional to recognize unhealthy patterns in your thinking and help you get back on track. A therapist can help you think more positively about yourself and teach you stress-management skills.
  3. Exercise. Physical activity is a very effective stress relief tool. Not only does it relieve tension and feel-good chemicals in your body, but it can offer a meditative state for your mind to process stress. Plus, exercise combats the negative health effects caused by stress.

Tips for Handling External Stressors

  1. Talk it out. If you’re feeling stress because of a situation with a friend, boss or family member, speaking up can relieve anxiety and stress. It might feel difficult, but talking through issues knocks out a lot of associated stress.
  2. Develop stress-relief strategies. When stressful things happen out of nowhere, you should have some go-to techniques to reduce stress in those moments. It’s helpful to learn and know stress-relieving breathing or meditation techniques. You’ll be better prepared to handle stress from external events.
  3. Make changes. If life is just too stressful in general, you may need to make some difficult decisions. Leaving a toxic job or relationship might be hard, but it might also remove chronic stress. Take steps to create a life that takes care of you, not one that buries you in stress.

Everyone’s different, so it’s a good thing there are stress management techniques to fit into anyone’s life. For more ideas on relieving both internal and external stress,

Check out these 170 stress management techniques. Try different techniques until you find stress-relief methods that work for you.

When You Should Get Help

Yes, everyone undergoes stress. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer through it. People need to manage stress in order to be their best selves. You will always experience stress, but with stress management practice, you’ll begin to handle it with more ease.

If stress is ongoing and you’re feeling it deepen to a point of constant sadness, anxiety or depression, it might be time to talk to a doctor or therapist. Sometimes, people need help identifying internal and external stressors, and learning how to deal with them in healthy ways. There’s nothing wrong with seeking help when stress is putting your overall health at risk.

Take the stress test!

Join the Find-a-therapist community and get access to our free stress assessment!

Additional Resources

Prioritizing our mental well-being is paramount in today’s fast-paced world. The digital age has redefined therapy and psychiatric care, making support more accessible than ever. To guide you towards a healthier state of mind, we’ve partnered with pioneering names in mental health.
Note: We collaborate with top-tier mental health companies and we earn a commission if you purchase services through our ads.

Online Therapy

Discover a path to emotional well-being with BetterHelp – your partner in convenient and affordable online therapy. With a vast network of 30,000+ licensed therapists, they’re committed to helping you find the one to support your needs. Take advantage of their Free Online Assessment, and connect with a therapist who truly understands you. Begin your journey today.

Relationship Counceling

Whether you’re facing communication challenges, trust issues, or simply seeking to strengthen your connection, ReGain’s experienced therapists are here to guide you and your partner toward a healthier, happier connection from the comfort of your own space. Get started.

Therapist Directory

Discover the perfect therapist who aligns with your goals and preferences, allowing you to take charge of your mental health. Whether you’re searching for a specialist based on your unique needs, experience level, insurance coverage, budget, or location, our user-friendly platform has you covered. Search here.

About the author

Valerie Sizelove
Valerie Sizelove is a freelance content writer who specializes in health, mental health, self-improvement and parenting topics. She also loves to spill her guts on Medium. When she’s not wrangling her four kids or writing, you might find Valerie weeding in her amateur vegetable garden or baking some phenomenal cookies.

You might also be interested in


In some articles, we include products we think are useful for our readers. When you buy through these links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Information on our website is for educational and informational purposes only. You should not rely on this information as a substitute, nor does it replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a mental healthcare professional.

Online Therapy, Your Way

Discover the ease of starting therapy with BetterHelp. Complete the assessment and connect with a licensed professional therapist online.
Note: We earn a commission if you purchase services through our ads.