3 Steps to Assessing Your Stress

Did you know that humans could not function without stress? Stress gives us motivation, stimulation, and challenge. Stress can provide excitement. Stress also gives us survival modes. Feeling hungry is a stressor, but then we eat and do not feel hungry anymore. We do not normally think of that of stress, but it is a physical stress on the body. Stress only becomes a problem when it is too high and exceeds our ability to cope, resulting in disease, distress, and anxiety.

If a person feels in control, the challenge could be viewed as invigorating. However, when one no longer feels in control, this is when there becomes a mismatch between the challenges and one’s ability to cope with those challenges. A person’s ability to cope depends on their history and life experiences. This is why stress is so individual. Each person experiences each situation differently. For some, no big deal, for others, a very big deal.

How do you know if what your experiencing is a stress response?

When the body experiences a stress response the following physical symptoms may be experienced:

  • Increased pulse rate
  • Enhanced perspiration
  • Tightened stomach
  • Tense arm and leg muscles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Gritted teeth
  • Clenched jaw
  • Inability to sit still

As each person experiences a situation in their own way, the psychological reactions can be numerous.  Here’s some possible psychological responses may be experienced, but this list is as varied as there are individuals: 

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty with coming to decisions
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Irritability to frequent anger
  • Insatiable cravings
  • Unnecessary worry and anxiety
  • Irrational fear
  • Panic
  • Compelling emotions and mood swings

Stress can also cause behavioural responses such as:

  • Smoking, heightened need for a cigarette during a stressful situation
  • Increased use of medications
  • Nervous tics
  • Absent mindedness
  • Accident-proneness
  • Hair pulling, nail biting, foot tapping, etc.
  • Increased or decreased eating
  • Increased or decreased sleeping
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Uncalled-for aggression

So how do you assess your personal stress levels?

Step 1 – Develop awareness of your stress levels.

What is happening around you? To you? Within you? Be aware and identify what your stressor is and how you respond to it physically, mentally and behaviourally. Refer to the lists above, or recognize your individual stress reactions. Make note of them.

An example:

Mary is having an issue with Heather at work. Heather is saying mean things about Mary behind her back to other co-workers. Mary feels she has no connections to people at work because she avoids them, as she believes that they believe what Heather is saying about her.

When Mary is at work she has a tightened stomach and inability to sit still (physical symptoms). She has trouble concentrating on her work and feels on the verge of tears several times each day (psychological symptoms). Mary has been biting her nails and snacks on junk food late in the evening (behavioural symptoms).

Step 1 – Mary acknowledges her stress symptoms. She also is aware that her stress response is triggered by what she thinks others at work think of her, because of what Heather says. She is also aware of the history between herself and Heather, and that Heather was mad at Mary last year because Mary didn’t invite her to birthday drinks after work.

Step 2 – Self-acceptance of the situation.

Learn to accept who you are and your abilities. This is not a time to place harsh judgements on yourself, rather a time to learn to love and forgive yourself, set realistic goals and expectations of yourself. Look at the situation with a deep breath and consider what you do or do not have control over in the situation.

Example continued:

Step 2 – Mary acknowledges that she avoids her co-workers because she believes they think poorly of her. She knows she was under no obligation to invite Heather to birthday drinks last year. She understands that by avoiding her co-workers, she is likely feeding in to what Heather is saying about her.

Step 3 – Accept responsibility.

Acknowledging your personal stress levels is needed in order to take responsibility for accepting and changing what you have control over in the situation. No matter what the stressor — an unhappy marriage/relationship, work environment, a pandemic…. Making changes is your responsibility for the area(s) where you have control.

Example continued:

Step 3 – Mary thinks about which of her co-workers she got along with best and decides to invite that person to eat lunch with her to start reconnecting with people in the office. She picks the person she feels safest to approach.

She does not feel ready to speak to Heather directly. She will continue to think on it and assess when/if she’s ready to take on that conversation. Mary considers if she can establish boundaries with Heather, if Heather would be open to such a conversation. Mary also needs to consider what evidence she has that Heather is really gossiping about her. Mary feels right now, to best reduce her stress by connecting with others, there may be no need for a direct conversation with Heather. At no point should Mary speak negatively about Heather to her co-workers.

For information on stress response coping strategies, please read my blog post The 3 A’s of Coping with Stress.

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