How Do You Measure Stress…

As the often quoted, and brilliant neurologist Robert Sapolsky has stated in the past, “we are notoriously bad at being objective with our feelings”.
For instance, how often do you take note when things are ok, or great – rarely I should imagine. You’re probably just getting on with your day and paying your emotional side no heed. It’s when we’re in that negative space – more often than not it’s when we’re not ok – that we take note, and in that negative fug it seems like only 10 minutes ago that we were here last (that negative mind has you thinking you’re in this state way more often than you are).
So how do we know how we are feeling in general?
There’s no gauge for stress on the body after all (wouldn’t that be handy!), and it’s vital for our wellbeing that we know when we can go hard, or when we should really be going home.
Stress comes in a number of forms when discussing a negative impact on health.
Physical stress
Psychological stress (both of which can be good and bad)
Chemical stress
Environmental stress.
These can affect our minds and bodies at constantly changing levels throughout the whole day, and sometimes throughout the night, as I’m sure many will testify.
Not only that, but we all have different capacities and appetites for stress.
So the equation becomes even harder to get a reading on.
Take good physical stress.
You’ve been for a run, nothing too exhausting but let’s say for this explanation a 5k jog. It’s a stressor, albeit a good one. You have put your physical body under a state of strain, more so than say a 10 minute walk, or a half hour snooze. After this speedy canal-side sunrise saunter, some may feel energised and ready for the day ahead.
But on another day, why is it you feel more tired?
Physically you may be rested, but there may be other stressors at play here, and only one pot of fuel for brain and body to draw from.
Monday morning and you’re managing a bad relationship with the boss or a colleague, and recently it’s been even more tiresome trying to keep the peace. Couple that with a long 5 hour drive down the motorway yesterday to see an ill parent, and a trans Atlantic flight two days earlier heading back from an in/out hit the ground running presentation in Milwaukee and perhaps that 5k jog now has a completely different feel.
But you’re aware that haven’t jogged in 2 weeks, so your mind says ‘green light and go Mo (Farah), you haven’t run for a while and so you must be full of beans to the power of 10”.
On your coffee table is a magazine telling you that exercise is good for you, and not only that but we all know that it can help your cognitive state too (you did know that right?), so you pull on your Nike’s and choose to push a bit harder today, trying to hit that 5k PB regardless of other stressors taking their toll. And all of a sudden your 60% energy tank now reads 40%, as you trudge into work post run on a sweaty crowded tube to your not so friendly colleague awaiting your arrival.
What you need is that stress gauge so you can look at all these levels as a whole and give you a simple traffic light system letting you know whether to double up that effort, or slip back under the eiderdown (does anyone still use this word anymore?). Probably not. It sounded good anyway.
A good way to monitor overall stress is by checking your HRV.
A Heart Rate Variability measurement is a great way of looking at ‘how you are’, over ‘how you feel’.
It measures the time between your heart beats (+ other algorithms), and can pretty accurately give you a yep or a nope or a go easy today. From experience I can tell you it often doesn’t tally up with my initial feelings (after all, these feelings can be momentary) and I’m either pleasantly surprised that I can give it a little more than I thought, or thankful that I’m more aware that I should ease back today.
Feelings give us a great understanding of the moment, but perhaps not so great when we are trying to look objectively at an overall ‘this is how the last 24 hours have been’ – so ideally, the best way to progress can be to view a good source of mean-based information on how to proceed.
The short video below is of my current HRV, measured each morning (more-or-less), before I’ve even sat upright. And as you can see, there’s a few yellows in there which gave me an indication to just be mindful and go a little slower, and by listening to the biological feedback you can see that I hit green mornings following.
In fact I’m feeling pretty smug about the current run. Yes, I said it: smug. Something I achieved by learning, listening and applying.
And no, it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ as my mother used to say, there are still challenges to face in my current life, but I’m giving myself the best frame of mind to deal with them.
So keep a track of those feelings broadly, over acutely.
Unless you walk into a lion.
Then go with your acute feelings.
I’m pretty sure they’re being honest with you at that point.

113 thoughts on “How Do You Measure Stress…

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