Measuring stress involves assessing a person’s physiological responses to stressors and, to a lesser extent, understanding the possible triggers for stress.

Measuring stress may help a person or their healthcare team determine whether the steps they are taking to manage stress are working.

Stress measurement involves understanding what stressful events a person may be dealing with and how their body responds to the different stressors. A measurement of perceived stress can also help show how much stress a person is feeling.

This article reviews how to measure stress, what a normal stress level is, symptoms of high stress, and tips on managing stress levels.

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Measuring stress involves examining its component parts. Stress involves triggers and a person’s response to those triggers.

Triggers can include a variety of events, from acute situations to chronic situations.

Examples of acute situations include:

  • giving a speech
  • experiencing the sudden death of a loved one
  • taking a test

Examples of chronic situations include:

  • caring for a loved one for the long term
  • moving to a new place
  • living with a chronic health condition

The number of stressful events or triggers a person is experiencing may influence their stress levels. However, each person’s response to triggers plays a potentially bigger role in the amount of stress they experience.

For example, one person may find it overwhelming to be a caregiver for a loved one, while another person may not have any major difficulties with that experience. As a result, the second person may have less overall stress.

Stress measurement often involves assessing a person’s perceived stress and the physiological changes they experience.

Perceived Stress Scale

The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a 10-question self-assessment that asks a person to rate the amount of stress they feel with a score of 0–4.

A higher total score indicates that a person is experiencing a larger amount of stress.

While potentially helpful in self-assessing stress levels for a person dealing with a stressful event, the PSS cannot provide a diagnosis or guidance on treatment.

Brainwave tests

In a 2020 study, researchers looked at how measured brainwaves from an electroencephalography (EEG) test may indicate stress levels. They found that alpha asymmetry may be a valid and useful biomarker of stress.

Alpha asymmetry is an imbalance of alpha brain waves on either side of the brain.

Learn about EEGs.

Heart rate variability testing

Heart rate variability (HRV) describes the changes in times between beats of the heart. The heart automatically changes the timing between beats to respond to sudden physical and psychological changes that occur.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls HRV. The ANS includes both the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes over during periods when a person feels calm.

Chronic stress causes the sympathetic nervous system to become hyperactive. When this occurs, it causes changes in HRV, which researchers suggest may help measure stress levels.

Doctors can measure HRV using an electrocardiogram and different wearable devices.

Hormone level testing

The ANS also controls the release of cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones play roles in the fight-or-flight response that stress can trigger. Adrenaline provides the body with a burst of energy, while cortisol helps shut down nonessential processes in the body.

Several studies have shown that cortisol levels may rise during periods of stress, but they may also stay the same. This makes cortisol levels an unreliable measurement of stress, though they may still provide useful information about potentially harmful levels of cortisol in the blood.

A doctor can use a saliva or blood sample to check cortisol levels, or a person can order an at-home testing kit.

Learn about at-home hormone tests.

Currently, no standards exist to accurately describe normal or abnormal stress levels.

According to a 2020 study describing ways for fellow researchers to talk about and measure stress, no single biomarker can accurately report stress levels. Both heart rate changes and cortisol levels can fluctuate due to factors outside of stress.

A person should consider contacting a doctor if they experience any symptoms related to stress.

Symptoms of stress can mimic those of anxiety. A distinguishing feature of stress symptoms is that they typically go away once the stressor resolves.

Signs that a person may be under high stress include:

Learn more about stress.

A person can take several steps to manage stress on their own, such as:

  • practicing meditation, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques
  • recording thoughts in a journal
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • getting enough regular physical activity or exercise
  • avoiding excessive caffeine consumption
  • reaching out to friends and family for help

A person who continues to experience stress may wish to consider contacting a healthcare professional who can provide additional services or connect the person to therapies that may help.

Learn more about stress-reduction strategies.

It is possible to measure stress through biomarkers such as heart rate variability and cortisol levels. Biomarkers alone are not perfect gauges of stress, but they may provide useful information about a person’s overall health.

A person can take steps to deal with everyday stress. They may also wish to contact a healthcare professional for advice if they find that stress is interfering with their daily activities.