How to Measure Stress Levels

stress levels

A lot of us are experiencing worryingly high stress levels.

But just as you can tune out an annoying noise if you live with it long enough, chronic stress can also start to feel normal. You learn to accept feelings of anxiety or constant tension.

This is not okay. Long-term stress is dangerous. It harms your mental and physical health and strains productivity, relationships and self-esteem.

Understanding your stress level is the first step in bringing it down. Read our guide to learn more about stress, its effects and methods to measure it.

What is Stress?

On the biological level, stress is a flood of hormones ­– epinephrine (better known as adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol. You can’t control when these hormones are released; they’re triggered automatically by a perceived threat or extreme emotions.

The hormones set off a series of physical and psychological changes to make you temporarily faster, stronger and sharper. This response –fight or flight – has evolved to help us overcome life-threatening situations.

You need this reaction in the right circumstances. It can be the difference between survival and death. But things are different now. Most of us go our entire lives without experiencing mortal danger, yet our stress response stays on high alert.

Stress Management Training

Our Stress Management Training course explains the key aspects of how stress can affect individuals in a work environment and provides practical advice to manage and control the problem to safeguard your health. 

Impacts of Stress

Stress hormones trigger several adaptations, all intended for survival. But when you’re not actually in danger, those life-saving effects are harmful. Damage worsens when your stress response is triggered regularly or for a prolonged period.

You can generally group effects into two categories: physical and psychological.

Physical

The physical symptoms of stress prepare you to fight or flee. A rush of adrenaline readies us to go to combat or flee quickly. Blood flow increases to your muscles, readying you for action. Your heart rate also spikes for the same reason.

Your body’s making a hidden sacrifice here. Muscles can only get the blood, oxygen and nutrients they need for peak performance at the expense of your other systems. Digestion slows down, for example, as does blood flow to your skin.

This altered physical state isn’t an issue if you end up fighting or running for your life. Exertion uses stress hormones, and after the danger has passed, your body returns to normal with no enduring side effects.

But, helpful effects become harmful if your stress response is prolonged or you’re not in a situation requiring extreme physical effort.

Common physical effects of chronic stress include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Heart palpitations

Regularly suffering these symptoms has more severe health risks, increasing your risk of a stroke or heart attack.

Psychological

Just like your body, stress also readies your brain for action.

Your focus is purposefully narrowed. Blood’s diverted from your frontal lobe – the part of your brain dedicated to creativity and rational thought – to your limbic area. This section of your brain processes input from your senses, and the increased activity improves your ability to locate threats.

Again, this effect is helpful in the wild, not the office.

Your decision-making is affected, along with your ability to regulate emotions, making you prone to:

  • Mood swings
  • Increased irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem

Over an extended period, these effects seriously harm your mental health. This deterioration can fuel a vicious cycle where relationships suffer or resilience fades, leaving you more susceptible to stress.

What Causes Workplace Stress?

Stress isn’t the same for everyone because we’re all built differently ­ – genetics, upbringing and personality all affect stress tolerance levels. One person’s breakdown is another’s inconvenience.

But stress eventually comes for us all, often finding us at work. There are six recognised causes of work-related stress, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):

  • Feeling unable to cope with demands
  • Lacking control over ways of working
  • Missing instruction or support
  • Suffering bullying or workplace conflict
  • Misunderstanding your role or responsibilities
  • Experiencing sudden change without explanation or input

Although these situations aren’t life or death, they can make it feel like your professional survival is at stake. And our stress responses can’t tell the difference. Any threat (physical or emotional) can be enough to trigger a fight or flight reaction, even when it’s incredibly unhelpful.

The HSE offers guidance on work-related stress because it’s a known hazard. Stress (along with depression and anxiety) was responsible for nearly half of all 1.8 million cases of work-related ill health in 2022-23. This puts figures above 2018-19 pre-coronavirus levels, suggesting rising cases.

How Do You Measure Stress Levels?

Stress is personal, which makes it difficult to measure accurately. But stress is a recognised physiological response, so you can track it by examining its impact on the brain and body.

Examining brainwaves is an accurate stress measurement method but obviously requires specialist equipment, not to mention a doctorate. It’s the same with monitoring the flood of hormones that comes with the stress response. Although the popularity of fitness trackers or smartwatches makes it easier to measure your heart rate, you might mistake a mild panic attack for an increased heart rate from a brisk walk by only using this metric.

Measure Stress Levels

It’s more helpful for non-scientists to look at how stress affects our thoughts or feelings, which is where the Perceived Stress Scale comes in.

What is the Perceived Stress Scale?

The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a widely embraced stress measurement tool. It was developed in 1983 by Cohen et al. to measure how much stress people felt. The PSS was quickly recognised for its reliability, with results correlating to other indicators of excessive stress levels, such as social anxiety or physical symptoms.

The PSS consists of ten questions about your state of mind over the past month. You score your answers from zero to four (zero being never, four being very often). After answering each question honestly, you add up your scores to determine your stress levels. The higher the number, the more stressed you are.

Talking through problems with others also helps you find solutions and gain perspective.

I’ve Measured My Stress Levels – Now What?

If you scored below 13 on the PSS, congratulations! Your life is relatively stress-free, and we wish you all the best.

If you’re like the rest of us, you’re probably dealing with at least moderate stress. You can bring these levels down by looking at the stressors in your life and how you deal with them.

Our online Stress Management Training helps you identify and manage what’s stressing you out at work. It covers healthy coping mechanisms, letting you keep stress at a safe level. You’ll also learn how to spot the symptoms of stress without medical intervention or the use of the PSS, letting you recognise when others in your life might need support.

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Jonathan Goby
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