As an athlete and medical professional, I am well acquainted with wanting to measure everything. When I started noticing the effects of stress in own life (fatigue, brain fog, chronic pain, and palpitations), I started looking more into how to measure stress in my body. Here are 6 ways to measure stress in the body.
My goal was mostly to track the effects of stress reduction techniques to see if they were working as I made adjustments in my own life. I really wanted to understand the cause and effect of stress and pain. Knowing what worked and what didn’t work allowed me to focus the energy I had left on healthy practices that helped me feel better.
Once you start to recognize stress and pain in your life, it can become all you notice. As your awareness focuses in on specific physical symptoms, they become more present. For instance, you might not notice a hang nail all day, but once you do, that little bugger will eat up all your attention.
Psychological vs Physiological Measurements of Stress
By measuring stress early on you’ll be more effective at adjusting your practice to effectively reduce stress in your life. There are a number of ways to do this, and it depends a lot on how detailed and invasive you want to get.
Measurements of stress fall into one of two categories – psychological or physiological. Psychological measurements include mostly questionnaires and checklists. They are non-invasive, require no technology and are easy to perform.
On the other hand, physiological measurements include a broader array of tests and generally look at how stress has impacted your health. Proxies of physiological stress include blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability and breathing frequency. In addition, the stress hormone cortisol can be measured in the blood or saliva.
What I Learned About Measuring Stress
As I started to experiment on myself, I learned that many of these tests are variable and affected by many factors, not just stress. Therefore, a trend is often more helpful that one specific measurement.
I have personally used heart rate variability as a daily measurement of stress and recovery for over a year now. The Garmin Fenix 5 also has a “stress score” that uses a complicated algorithm to trend physiological stress measurements like heart rate and heart rate variability, which interestingly has trended with other measurements I have used to track stress in my life.
The best method for you though, is the one that you will use consistently. Below you will find 6 ways to measure stress in the body. I recommend reading through the list and finding 1 or 2 that might work for you. Use those methods for at least 1-2 months as you track the effect of stress in your life.
6 Ways to Measure Stress in the Body
1. Perceived stress scale
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a validated and widely used psychological instrument for measuring stress. It measures how different situations affect our feelings and levels of perceived stress. Keep in mind that the test asks you to consider how you felt over the last month. Therefore, this measuring tool should not be used daily, but rather as a measure of stress over time.
2. Ardell Wellness Stress Test
The Ardell Wellness Stress Test (AWST) was designed as a consciousness-raising, self-assessment tool. This test includes 25 questions that consider physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of health. After rating each question, you’ll add up the scores and see where you fall on the test interpretation chart.
3. Heart rate
An increased heart rate is normal in response to a stressful event. Unfortunately, when we are exposed to chronic stress our heart rate can remain elevated, which is unhealthy over time. A higher heart rate means the cardiac system is being taxed more as the heart contracts more frequently.
Although heart rate is not very specific to stress levels, it is easy to measure and trend over time. In general, chronic stress and under-recovery will cause the resting heart rate to gradually increase. It can also be used as a measure of recovery from chronic stress as the body starts to re-set its balance point.
4. Heart rate variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) measures the fluctuation of time between one heartbeat and the next. A low HRV suggests a monotonously regular heart rate (HR) and is a marker of low adaptability of the cardiac system. Essentially, a lower HRV means higher levels of stress and activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
On the other hand, a higher HRV is usually tied to a lower HR. Generally, in this case, the body is in a calmer state with higher vagal tone. Vagal tone is tied to the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, nervous system. In this state, the body is primed for recovery and healing.
While the concept of HRV may seem a little complex (believe me, I think it is), luckily there are a number of apps that spit out a number that you can trend. Many watches currently available on the market also have built-in features that calculate and trend HRV without you even realizing it.
5. Breathing frequency
How often have you thought about the act of breathing today? Probably not much. And yet you’ve been doing it since you woke up this morning. There is probably little that comes as naturally to us as breathing and yet the breath can have significant effects on us!
The breath is responsible for the intake of oxygen, which is distributed throughout your body and is vital to every cellular function. In addition, the blood flowing back to your lungs carries excess carbon dioxide, which leaves the body when you exhale.
Under stress, you may or may not notice that your breathing quickens and becomes more shallow. Ultimately, you waste significant functional capacity of your lungs, reducing the powerful effects of the breath. By becoming in tune with your breath, you can more readily notice when you are in a stressful state and then take steps to relax.
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. Essentially, it acts as an alarm system for the body. When the body is exposed to a threat, the fight-or-flight response is activated. In response, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis begins to produce more cortisol.
Cortisol can be tested in a blood or saliva sample. These are more invasive and costly tests than other methods of measuring stress. In addition, the level of cortisol in your body is affected by a lot of variables, like time of day and temperature, so the actual test value can be difficult to interpret.
Therefore, while cortisol levels may be important in some settings, like a randomized-controlled trial, it is quite impractical in an everyday setting.
How do you currently keep track of stress in your life?
I hope this post has given you a few ideas for tracking stress in your life. Stress can pile up when you are not paying attention. By taking simple steps to track stress in your life, you’ll be able to stay on top of it.