September 11, 2015
Stress Management Tip #1: Give Your Stress a Number
By Warren Holleman
Tracking your stress level doesn’t fix anything, but it does help you to become more aware of what it is you’re dealing with. This awareness, or mindfulness, is an essential skill for managing stress.
There are several ways to rate your stress level. Here are 3 of my favorites.
The Stress Pyramid
This is a gross assessment in which you place your stress level in one of 4 categories: “None,” “Mild,” “Moderate,” or “Severe.”
“None” means that you have no stress at all, which means either you aren’t alive or lead a very dull and boring life. If you are one of the rare individuals in this category, you need more challenges and more stress in your life, not less. I rarely meet someone with this problem. Especially in the health professions!
“Mild” is where you want to be. Enough new demands and challenges to keep your life and your work meaningful and interesting. But not so many that you feel overwhelmed. If you can manage to spend most of your life in this category, you will be a happy person.
“Moderate” means you are starting to feel “dis-stressed” or overwhelmed, and a warning sign that you need to think about decreasing your demands or increasing your ability to manage those demands. Perhaps you need to say “no” to the next job task sent your way, or else recruit someone to help you. Or perhaps you need to see a counselor to teach you some coping skills. A person in the “Moderate” category can get away with it in the short run, but not over the long haul—at least not at your highest level of effectiveness and quality. Plus, you’re probably cutting corners on personal and family needs and thus at risk of sliding into the “Severe” category.
“Severe” means that your stress levels are causing significant impairment to your ability to function in your work, in your relationships, and in your activities of daily living. If it feels like a hurricane is bearing down on you, you need to head for safe harbor immediately! When stress levels are severe, you are at risk of losing your job, losing your family, even losing your life. This is a mental health emergency demanding your full attention.
If you want to fine tune your assessment, rate yourself on a scale of 1-10. Do this on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis—whatever you find most helpful.
You can set up the scale in any number of ways. I prefer to think of 1-3 as a healthy level of stress. A “4” means I’m starting to have a problem. An “8” means it’s a very serious problem. If I’m a “9” or “10,” then I need to drop everything. This is an emergency!
Rate yourself on the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale
Rating yourself on a scale of 1-10 can be rather subjective. Some tend to skew their self-ratings based not on stress per se, but on other factors causing them to feel like they are having a good or bad day.
I’ve also found that those who work in high-stress professions tend to under-rate their stress level because high-stress has become the norm in their work culture. “Sure, I couldn’t sleep last night because I was worried about x, y, and z, but most of my co-workers don’t sleep either. We all take Ambien, Benadryl, and alcohol to get to sleep at night. It’s normal.”
To get a fuller understanding of what stress is and isn’t, as well as a scientific measure of your stress level, the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is an excellent resource. Developed by Dr. Sheldon Cohen, the PSS is “the most widely used psychological instrument for measuring the perception of stress.” It assesses “how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded” you find your life to be. The instrument can be completed in 1-2 minutes. One other nice feature of the PSS . . . You can download it, free of charge!
I recommend taking the PSS 2 or 3 times over a period of the next few weeks or months. This will help you get a more objective sense of your stress level. Once this happens, you can scale yourself more accurately on a 1-10 scale.
If you score 13 or lower on the PSS, you are doing great in terms of stress. Keep doing whatever you’re doing, because it’s working! If you score 20 or higher, this is a big, red flag. I’d put you in the “Severe” category—the equivalent of an 8, 9, or 10 on the self-rating scales I described above. If you score 14-19 on the PSS, I’d put you in the “Moderate” category, and if your score is closer to 19 than 14, you are moving into a danger zone.
Remember, these rating scales do not fix your problem. They only help you become more aware of the presence and severity of the problem. But! As the experts on behavioral change have taught us, when our awareness and understanding increase, so do our motivation (desire to change) and our self-efficacy (belief in our ability to change). And once we have the motivation and the self-efficacy, deep, significant behavioral changes are possible.
I’d love to hear from you, and so would other readers. Please share your tips, thoughts, experiences, and questions in the Comments section below.
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