Excessive stress is associated with health complications. Are there ways to accurately measure stress levels? Although stress is a natural and inevitable part of life, many people feel that they are under excessive stress. However, there is no objective way to define “excessive stress”. Many people find it difficult to express or quantify their stress. There are a few methods to measure stress. They consist of examining certain biomarkers, in other words, physiological responses, to assess how your body reacts to stress.
How to measure stress?
Stress is made up of two elements:
Stress triggers: the factors that cause stress
Stress Response: How you react to stress triggers emotionally, biologically or cognitively.
When we talk about measuring stress, we tend to talk about measuring triggers or responses. Measuring stress triggers can mean taking stock of the big life changes you’ve been through. However, everyone reacts differently to triggers. Events that may be very stressful for one person may be easily manageable for another. The following stress measurement methods focus specifically on measuring your stress response. These stress measurement methods look at your body’s physiological responses. They record stress biomarkers, such as heart rate and brain waves, to assess how stress affects your body.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis is a common way to measure stress. It consists of recording the variation over time between consecutive heartbeats. In other words, it’s not just about observing how fast your heart beats, but also the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. HRV is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes over when you are relaxed. When you are chronically in “fight or flight” mode, your autonomic nervous system is out of balance. This imbalance can show up in your HRV. HRV is lower when you are in fight or flight mode and higher when you are in a calm state. A high HRV is associated with resistance to stress and better cardiovascular health. A healthcare professional can check your HRV with an electrocardiogram. Personal devices, such as chest straps, can also measure HRV.
Electroencephalography (EEG) measures brain waves. Research suggests that brain waves may be an accurate way to measure stress response. In particular, a 2020 study found that alpha asymmetry, an imbalance of alpha brainwave activity on different sides of the brain, could be a potential biomarker of stress. Mental health practitioners who use neurofeedback can measure brain waves and train the brain with positive feedback when the EEG finds that treatment goals are being met.
Two hormones associated with stress are adrenaline and cortisol.
When you are stressed, your body produces adrenaline to give you the energy to deal with your stressor. It’s part of the fight-or-flight response, and it’s why you may feel restless when you’re anxious. During times of stress, your body also produces cortisol, which contributes to the fight or flight response. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland.
Cortisol is also involved in the regulation:
Cortisol naturally goes up and down throughout the day. Neither cortisol nor adrenaline is “bad,” but when cortisol is chronically high, it can harm your health. For example, it can cause the following issues:
high blood pressure
Lab tests can assess your cortisol levels from urine or blood samples. You can buy home cortisol test kits, which usually involve testing cortisol in urine.
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS)
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a questionnaire developed in 1983. It is used to assess the level of stress you feel under. Unlike the stress measurement methods mentioned above, this tool is based on your own perception of stress. The questions are not about the events you are currently experiencing, but about your emotional and mental state. It may be helpful to use the PSS to check in with yourself.
What are stress trackers?
There are home devices that claim to measure stress. In general, these devices measure stress by measuring heart rate and heart rate variability. Many fitness trackers, including smartwatches and chest strap monitors, have stress analysis functions.
Are wearable stress trackers accurate?
It’s not easy to say. There is not enough research to know if these devices are accurate. However, because these trackers only use one variable — usually your heart — they don’t paint the full picture of your body’s response to stress.
What is a “normal” level of stress?
Stress is a part of life, and it’s natural to feel stressed from time to time. However, too much stress can be detrimental to health.
When is stress considered excessive?
There is no objective answer to this question. However, if you are experiencing physical symptoms of stress, or feel unable to relax, this may be an indication that you should speak to a medical professional. Likewise, if you feel like you can’t cope or feel overwhelmed most of the time, you might want to see a doctor or therapist.
Symptoms of an unhealthy stress level
Symptoms of high stress levels can vary from person to person.
These symptoms may include:
Although these problems can be caused by other factors, it is worth seeing a doctor or therapist if you suspect that stress is causing physical or emotional symptoms.
Tips for managing stress
There are a number of healthy ways to deal with stress.
Exercise: Find a form of exercise or movement that you enjoy. Yoga, in particular, is associated with reducing stressTrusted Source, but other forms of exercise can also be helpful.
Practice deep breathing exercises: Research from 2018 suggests that deep breathing can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, putting you in a relaxed state.
Limit screen time: Excessive screen time can harm your mental and emotional health, according to 2018Trusted Source research. Try to find breaks throughout the day to get away from your screens.
Spend time with others: Research from 2020 suggests that spending time with others can help you feel less lonely and less stressed. If you don’t have loved ones nearby, join classes, church services, or meet-up groups to get a steady dose of human interaction.
Try to meditate regularly: Research shows that meditation can reduce stress and improve overall well-being. If you don’t know where to start, try a guided meditation.
Spend time in nature: Being in nature can reduce stress and improve your emotional state. Try walking in a local park or natural area, playing an outdoor sport, or simply having a meal outside each day.
Find support: If a particular stressor seems difficult for you to manage, consider joining a relevant support group. For example, if you have recently been bereaved, a bereavement support group can help you deal with your emotions.
If you are often stressed, you might find it helpful to speak with a therapist. Everyone can benefit from quality therapy. It can help you build your resistance to stress and process stressful events in a supportive environment. If you are concerned about the cost of therapy, consider other affordable therapy options.
Stress is a natural part of everyday life. Many methods of measuring stress, such as heart rate variability analysis and hormone testing, can help you tell if you’re overly stressed. However, you do not need to measure your stress level to justify a request for help. If you think you would benefit from better managing your stress, consider seeing a therapist or using stress management techniques to improve your well-being.