What Is Your Stress Level? It's Not (Only) What You Think
We can't tell what stress is doing to our body; what we don't know can harm us.
Posted May 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Stress is not just what happens to you, or a feeling, or upsetting thoughts. It's all of the above, and more.
- The severity of the stressors we face, and our thoughts, feelings, and bodily responses, can differ in the levels of stress they indicate.
- Coping effectively with one component of stress may not help with others.
So much has been written about stress that you might think everything that can be said has been said. But there are issues that are not widely recognized and yet have importance both scientifically and for the individual.
Stress has multiple components. There are “stressors,” events and conditions that initiate stress; cognitive mediators, such as the perception and interpretation of stressors; stress responses, such as negative emotions and physiological changes; coping activity, our mental and behavioral efforts to manage stressors and their subjective effects; and outcomes, such as disease.
It's Not All in Your Head
There's a lot going on there, and it gets more complex when you unpack coping, which can be important for determining stress outcomes. The list of possible coping responses is very long, and there has been disagreement about how best to categorize different forms of coping as a means of creating greater conceptual clarity.
For example, coping has been described as either problem-focused or emotion-focused, depending on whether it is aimed directly at the stressful situation or at the way it makes us feel. Alternatively, coping has been described as either engaged or disengaged, depending on whether it entails actively approaching or avoiding stress, either of which might involve either a problem or emotion focus.
These complexities have caused consternation among some scientists, as when a presenter at a conference, mocking the many facets of stress and coping, stated that “everything in life is stressful and everything you do is coping.”
This complexity has a very important corollary: There is no one preferred method for measuring stress. Some involve counting the number of stressful events a person has recently experienced. Others consist of ratings of one's sense that things have been unpredictable, out of control, and, well, how “stressed” one feels. Still others assess the perception that ongoing conditions, such as those associated with one’s occupation or family life, pose excessive demands but provide little latitude for how best to manage them. Stress also has been measured in terms of physiological responses to either laboratory-based or real-life stressors, including changes in cardiovascular activity and the secretion of stress hormones.
That’s Right: You Probably Don't Know How Much Stress You Are Under
Here’s the problem: The self-report checklists, rating scales, and physiological measures used in stress research do not correlate very highly with each other. One person may accurately report that they are highly stressed without showing commensurate changes in physiologic activity; another may show precisely the opposite pattern (Newton & Contrada, 1992). It follows that you are not fully aware of your stress level. In fact, you do not have a (single) stress level. You may know whether you feel stressed; but that does not provide an accurate indication of what stress is doing to your body. And while not feeling stressed is generally a good thing, what stress does to our bodies may be more important for health.
So, knowing what stress is and how to cope with it is not enough. It would also be useful to know what is going on inside our bodies.
Acute stress, caused, say, by interpersonal conflict, or extreme physical danger, produces increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular responses that may contribute to heart disease. Research on this is often discussed in terms of its possible implications for individuals.
But there is no easy way for a person to measure those physiological responses. Your perception of or subjective emotional response to interpersonal and occupational stressors is unlikely to provide an accurate indication. It is almost like trying to measure your serum cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease, via introspection alone.
Are you doing too little to control stress? Or too much?
It might be possible to deal with this uncertainty in extreme cases where a person is clearly too concerned about stress or not concerned enough. I am unaware of research that provides a well-validated way of identifying such individuals. But if it never occurred to you that stress might be harming your body, it may be wise to begin examining all the components of stress as best you can to see if you may be ignoring a stress problem so that you can begin to think of ways of dealing with it.
On the other hand, if you have stress at the center of your radar screen, monitor it continuously, and regularly employ various stress-management techniques, good for you. Just make sure you are not over-emphasizing stress to the neglect of other health-related factors that may warrant greater attention. You know, the usual suspects, like diet, exercise, sleep, and healthcare when indicated.
Stress Is Not an Equal-Opportunity Experience, But It Is a Team Player
Another strategy is to identify your health goals and work backward from there. Stress does not play an equally important role in all medical conditions (Cohen, Murphy, & Prather, 2019). For example, evidence is stronger for cardiovascular disorders than cancer. Do a little homework and assess your risk status for various potentially stress-related conditions.
Overall risk status is important to know because stress does not act unilaterally to produce a given physical health problem. But maybe it acts as a tipping point. If your risk profile for a particular stress-related disorder is high, based on factors other than stress, then, in addition to attending to other risk factors, stress may be a more important focus for you than you have assumed.
We should be careful to neither exaggerate nor underestimate the impact of stress on our physical health. We should review all components of stress as well as we can rather than just any single indicator. And we should try to identify the forms of stress-related disease to which we may be most vulnerable.
If you have been assuming that you are stress-free, have stress under control, or are immune to its effects, maybe you should take a closer look. On the other hand, if stress and its management are so salient that they dominate your everyday activity, maybe loosen up a bit, or at least make sure you are not missing out on other good ways to invest time and energy.
Not everything in life is stressful, but a lot of it is. There are things we should be doing other than coping with stress. But we need to give the devil his due.
Newton, T. L., and Contrada, R. J. (1992). Verbal-autonomic response dissociation in repressive coping: The influence of social context. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 159-167.
Cohen, S., Murphy, M. L. M., and Prather, A. A. (2019). Ten Surprising Facts About Stressful Life Events and Disease Risk. Annual Review of Psychology. 2019. 70:577–597.