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’re experiencing excessive stress levels.
However, there’s no objective way to define “excessive stress.” Many people find it hard to express or quantify their stress.
There are a few methods for measuring stress. These look at certain biomarkers — in other words, physiological responses — to assess how your body responds to stress.
There are two components of stress:
- Stress triggers: the factors that cause stress
- Stress response: how you respond to stress triggers on an emotional, biological, or cognitive level
When we talk about measuring stress, we tend to be talking about measuring triggers or responses. Measuring stress triggers can include taking stock of the major life changes you’ve been under.
However, everybody responds to triggers differently. Events that might be very stressful for one person can be easily manageable for the other.
The following ways to measure stress look specifically at measuring your stress response. These methods of measuring stress look at your body’s physiological responses. They record stress biomarkers such as your heart rate and brainwaves to assess how stress affects your body.
Heart rate variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis is a common way to measure stress. It involves recording the variation in time between consecutive heartbeats. In other words, it doesn’t just look at how fast your heart is beating, but how the time period between heartbeats changes.
HRV is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS includes your sympathetic nervous system — responsible for fight-or-flight response — and your parasympathetic nervous system, which takes charge when you’re relaxed.
When you’re chronically in fight-or-flight mode, your ANS is unbalanced. This imbalance can show up in your HRV. HRV is lower when you’re in fight-or-flight mode and higher when you’re in a calm state. High HRV is
A healthcare professional can check your HRV via an electrocardiogram. Personal wearables, such as chest strap monitors, can also measure HRV.
Electroencephalography (EEG) measures brainwaves. Research suggests that brainwaves can be an accurate way to measure stress response.
In particular, a
Mental health practitioners who use neurofeedback can measure brainwaves and train the brain with positive feedback when the EEG finds that treatment goals are being met.
Two hormones associated with stress are adrenalin and cortisol.
When you’re stressed, your body will produce adrenalin to give you energy to handle your stressor. It’s a part of the fight-or-flight response, and it’s why you might feel restless when anxious.
In times of stress, your body also produces cortisol, which assists with the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland.
Cortisol is also involved in regulating:
- blood sugar
Your cortisol naturally ebbs and flows during the day. Neither cortisol nor adrenalin is “bad,” but when cortisol is chronically high, it can harm your health. For instance, it can lead to the following:
- difficulty concentrating
- high blood pressure
- mood problems
- muscle weakness
- weight gain
Lab tests can assess your cortisol levels via urine or blood samples. You can purchase home cortisol testing kits, which usually involve testing cortisol through urine.
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS)
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a questionnaire that was developed in 1983. It’s used to assess the amount of stress that you feel you’re under.
Unlike the above-mentioned methods of measuring stress, this tool relies on your own perception of your stress. The questions don’t focus on the events you’re currently experiencing, but your emotional and mental state.
It could be helpful to use the PSS to check in with yourself. It’s available in PDF format.
What are stress trackers?
There are at-home devices that claim to track stress. Usually, these devices track stress by measuring your heart rate and heart rate variability. Many fitness trackers, including smartwatches and chest strap monitors, have stress analysis features.
Are wearable stress trackers accurate? It’s not easy to say. There’s a lack of research into whether these are accurate. However, because these trackers only use one variable — typically your heart — they don’t give a complete picture of your body’s stress response.
Stress is a part of life, and it’s natural to feel stressed from time to time. However, excess stress can be harmful to your health.
When is stress considered excessive? There’s no objective answer to this question. However, if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of stress, or if you feel unable to relax, it may be an indication that you should speak with a healthcare professional.
Similarly, if you feel like you can’t cope or feel overwhelmed most of the time, you might benefit from speaking with a doctor or a therapist.
Symptoms of unhealthy stress levels
The symptoms of high stress levels can vary from person to person.
The symptoms can include:
- chronic pain
- difficulty with sleep
- digestive issues
- frequent illness
- abdominal pain
- weight gain
Although these issues can be caused by other factors, it’s worth speaking with a doctor or a therapist if you believe that stress is causing physical or emotional symptoms.
There are a number of ways to manage stress in a healthy way.
- Try exercise: Find a form of exercise or movement that you enjoy. Yoga, in particular, is associated with
stress reduction, but other forms of exercise can also be helpful.
- Practice deep breathing exercises:
Research from 2018suggests 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
2018 research. Try to find breaks throughout the day to walk away from your screens.
- Spend time with others:
Research from 2020suggests that spending time with others can help you feel less lonely and stressed. If you don’t have loved ones nearby, join classes, religious services, or meetup groups to get a regular dose of human interaction.
- Try meditating regularly: Research shows that meditation can
lower stressand improve overall well-being. If you’re not sure where to start, try a guided meditation.
- Spend time in nature: Being in nature can reduce stress and improve your emotional state, according to
2020 research. Try walking in a local park or natural space, taking up an outdoor sport, or simply eating a meal outside every day.
- Find support: If a particular stressor feels difficult to cope with, consider joining a relevant support group. For example, if you were recently bereaved, a grief support group might help you process your emotions.
If you’re often stressed, you might find it helpful to speak with a therapist. Anybody can benefit from quality therapy — it can help you build resilience to stress and process stressful events in a supportive environment. If the cost therapy is a concern for you, consider other affordable therapy options.
Stress is a natural part of everyday life. Numerous methods of measuring stress, such as heart rate variability analysis and hormonal testing, could help you find out whether you’re excessively stressed.
However, you don’t need to measure your stress levels in order to justify reaching out for help. If you feel that you could benefit from handling stress better, consider speaking with a therapist or using stress management techniques to improve your well-being.