How can you measure stress?

03 October 2017

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Question

I have a question about stress. I realise that how stressed I feel is not necessarily a reliable indicator of how stressed I actually am and, at the same time, getting it tested properly is probably expensive and impractical. How do I measure this in a practical way in my own daily life for myself and, perhaps more importantly, how do I help my team keep track of their actual stress as opposed to just asking them how they feel today?

Answer

Gareth Corbett stressed that there's no easy answer to this question...

Gareth - I think stress, obviously, has physical and psychological outputs, if you like. So physically we know that our heart rate might go up if we’re stressed or our blood pressure might go up, we might start to sweat, our pupil size might change. But they are all sort of signs of what’s going on on the inside with increased hormones being released such as adrenaline and getting us ready for running away and that’s all a bit evolutionary really, just getting your body ready to fly away.

I’d like to dispel the myth that stress is bad though. There’s a law which is called Yerkes Dodson law which is basically like a bell curve that just shows that if you’re not very stressed you won’t perform very well. If you’re very, very stressed you won’t perform very well. If you’ve got a little bit of underlying stress your performance goes up as that stress increases. I think that’s useful for people to note - stress is not a bad thing.

The question about practical day-to-day stress measurement. There are scores you can do to determine your stress levels - tick sheets and things. But I did find out that you can get personal fitness monitors that now have stress detector parts on them, like your Fitbit or other electronic device. The only thing about those is it’s got to be a bit context specific because it’s just measuring physiological measurements. It’s just what’s your heart rate doing, how much sweat are you producing and so on, rather than knowing where you are at the time. Because you could just be running at the gym or running for the bus or something like that as opposed to being in a stressful situation at the time.

The other thing is we obviously have a way of looking for stress in the real environment and maybe you could use it at work, which the police use, which is a lie detector tests. They are a way of measuring physical observations to see whether people are lying which is, obviously, making them stressed, and they look for minute changes in physiological measurements to determine if someone’s not telling the truth. And that’s, I suppose, in a way a very practical way of measuring stress.

Chris - They look for galvanic skin responses, don’t they? That’s little bits of sweat on your skin that changes how well your skin conducts electricity.

Gareth - And measure your ECG at the same time, and measure your blood pressure during the test, all those sorts of things.

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