Compassionate Support For The Aspiring Professional



Horizontal And Vertical Stressors

Horizontal And Vertical Stressors Teyhou Smyth

“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” 
― Frank HerbertDune

Stress is universal. But did you know it’s also three dimensional?

There are many types of stressors; some that are due to life events and unpredictable experiences through the life span.  These are known as horizontal stressors. Others are connected to the dynamics of your specific life; the values and beliefs passed down through the generations, the secrets, myths and labels. These are known as vertical stressors.

Here’s a fun fact, we have no control over either of these sources of stress.

Stressful, right? It’s true. We didn’t ask to be born into our families, nor did we choose the ways in which we were raised and taught. We didn’t make up the values and beliefs that our families instilled in us, nor did we develop the culture of our families of origin. That was set into motion and carried along for generations before we were even conceived.  Similarly, across our lifespan, we choose some aspects of our lives, but we have no control over many horizontal stressors; loss of loved ones, health crises, natural disasters; these are the things that happen to us.

As Billy Joel reassures us, We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Even though we have a limited amount of control over much of the stressors life has thrown (and will throw) at us, we can take our power to the parts of our lives that we do have control over. Our reactions. Our conscious thoughts and behaviors.

Think about your vertical stressors. Take a moment to ponder the following questions, to help you identify the specific vertical stressors in your own life.

  • What were the unspoken rules of your family of origin?
  • What biases did your family of origin carry?
  • Did you have labels (either chosen or not chosen by you) in your childhood?
  • What factors did you grow up with that influenced your life; demographics, cultural norms, expectations?
  • Were there family secrets that were off-limits for discussion?

These factors were on board from the beginning; this is the hand you were dealt.

Parts of this early life experience may have been beneficial in setting you up for resilience in life, and other parts may have served you negatively.

Consider the following questions as you explore your vertical stressors in connection to your current locus of control.

  • Which unspoken rules from your childhood do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? Why?
  • How did these unspoken rules impact you?
  • Do you agree with the labels that family of origin taught you during childhood?
  • Which demographic factors influenced you the most? were beneficial? Which were not beneficial?
  • What influence do your childhood cultural norms play in your adult life?
  • How did family secrets impact you throughout your childhood and development? How do they affect you now?

Vertical stressors are inevitable. But they are not without value.

Think about the knowledge of self that comes from this lived experience. Vertical stressors ultimately serve to teach us “who we are.” The values and norms that we are raised with can either become our beacon during rough times or warning signs to take a different path than what we were taught.

Horizontal stressors are out of our control, but also have some value over the course of time.  

The more distance we get from these difficult life events, the more we can look at them from a growth perspective.

  • What are some stressful events that you have experienced over the years?
  • How did these horizontal stressors affect you emotionally?
  • As time has passed, what negative and positive messages have you taken away from your difficult life events?
  • Did your vertical stressors and prior life experiences prepare you for these horizontal stressors in any way?

Resilience is a term that is thrown around a great deal, but it is a hard-earned trait that only comes from painful experiences. Horizontal and vertical stressors certainly create resilience.

If you were to list your stressors and what you have learned about yourself from these experiences, what would your list say? Create a list with these two categories and explore the ways you have grown and learn from you vertical and horizontal stressors:

Stressor: What it taught me about myself:


We rarely learn more about ourselves than when we are pushed to our limits. Horizontal and vertical stressors tell us what we are passionate about and why. They tell us the areas in which our weaknesses lie. Stressful life events and circumstances remind us where we came from and why we either follow that model or veer far, far away from it. Resilience develops through a variety of stressful scenarios that teach us what we need to survive difficult times.

Sure, stress isn’t fun or enjoyable, but it sure is instructive.

Share your story. Talk to people who are in similar situations, or who have travelled a similar path. It may surprise you how much wisdom you carry that you can share with someone else. Often it is through the act of talking or writing that we can process out thoughts and ideas that had never consciously surfaced.

Hearing the stories of others can reinforce and validate your own experiences. It may be helpful to hear about the ways others have coped with similar situations and offer a mutually supportive environment for growth.

Vertical and horizontal stressors can be useful parts of our life experience, but often cause us pain and suffering along the way.

Practice self-compassion. Step back and take the long-distance view on stressors when possible. The passage of time can help us better understand the effect of varying stressors on our lives.

Sometimes the most painful life events tell us most about who we are and what we stand for.