Hesperian Health Guides

Common Stresses Affecting Mental Health

In this chapter:

Taking more control over their own lives can bring women better mental health.

For most people, life has ups and downs, happiness as well as sadness, easy days and hard ones, and both joyful and difficult events. When facing common conditions of life that can affect mental health, some people adjust more easily while others have a harder time. The stresses discussed in the next few pages are common causes of mental health problems but not the only ones. Sometimes we just do not know why someone develops a mental health problem.

Stress in daily life

Daily life puts pressure on a person’s body and mind (stress). Stress can be caused by illness or by too much work. It can come from emotional events like conflict in the family or being blamed for problems you have no control over. It can come from social conditions like feeling in physical danger because of your gender or being discriminated against because of your race or ethnicity. Even welcome events like a new baby or getting a job can be stressful because they create big changes in your life.

It is easy not to notice the stress in daily life because it is always there. But it can take a lot of effort to get through each day.

illustration of the below: sources of stress for a woman include child care, work, meeting husband's needs, caring for the sick, too little money, and too little food

Most women have many kinds of stress pressuring them from all sides.

Sudden painful or tragic events are also stresses that can affect mental health.

Loss and death

When a woman loses someone or something important—a loved one, her work, her home, or a close friendship—she may feel overwhelmed with grief. It can also be a loss to become very ill or develop a disability.

Grieving is a natural response that helps a person adjust to loss. But if a woman faces many losses at once or if she already has a lot of daily stress, grief and loss can have more lasting effects on her mental health. This can also happen if a woman is unable to grieve in traditional ways. For example, if she was forced to leave her family or community, she may be without the people or places that would usually help her grieve.

Changes in a woman’s life and community

In many parts of the world, communities are changing rapidly because of economic conditions, climate change and its disasters, or armed conflict. Many of these changes force people to alter their entire way of life. For example:

a woman speaking
My name is Edhina. When the war started, soldiers came and forced the men in our village to fight. Some of the women were raped. We fled into the mountains where it was hard to find food. Now we live as refugees in a camp just across the border. We usually have enough to eat but many people are sick. The camp is crowded with strangers. Every day I wonder—will I ever see my home again?
a woman speaking
My name is Jurema. Every year our land produced less. We had to borrow money to buy seeds and even tried buying fertilizer but we could never grow enough to pay back the bank. We were finally forced to leave our land. Now we live in a shack at the edge of the city. Every morning when I wake up, I listen for the birds that had always greeted the morning. Then I remember—there are no birds here. There is only another day of scrubbing other people’s floors.

When families and communities break apart or when life changes so much that old ways of coping do not work any more, mental health problems are common.


a soldier grabbing a woman while other soldiers hold a man

When something terrible happens to a person or to someone close to them, this can cause trauma. Common causes of trauma are violence in the home, rape, war, torture, and disasters (natural or related to climate change). Trauma can be caused by a single event or by someone’s ongoing life conditions.

Trauma threatens a person’s physical and mental well-being. As a result, a person can feel unsafe, insecure, helpless, and unable to trust the world or the people around them. Recovering from trauma can take a long time and is not easy for most people. Trauma that took place in the past can still be a problem for someone, especially if they never had help to heal from it. Many adults are affected by childhood events that happened before they were old enough to understand them.

Other problems that can affect mental health

See these chapters for other common causes of mental health problems and ways to help:

Learning you have a new disability or a serious illness, such as advanced HIV disease or cancer, is a time when people need mental health support. Often, people who have a new baby or those who lost a pregnancy also need mental health support.

This page was updated:13 Nov 2023