Stress. That’s a word most of us are familiar with. Most of us have used this word at one time or another to describe our experience. But what is stress really? Where does it come from? And how does what happens in our mind impact our bodies? 

Although there are several definitions of what stress is, most agree, that it is a response to the demands and pressures of our experiences. What brings about this sense of pressure is called a stressor. A stressor can be internal events (ex. our thoughts or feelings) or external events (looming deadlines, a charging moose). What is clear is that it is not the stressor itself that causes us stress, but rather our perception of it and how we handle it that will ultimately determine whether or not we experience stress.  

People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.” — Epictetus

When we do experience stress our body has a physiological response. For example, if you are being chased by a bear your body will mobilize its resources to work like crazy so that you can either fight or flee. The good news is, we are exquisitely designed to respond brilliantly to this kind of emergency. The not so good news, we are also designed to have this same response when we encounter stress that is not an acute physical crisis, but rather psychological in origin. In other words, our bodies engage in the “fight or flight” response when we are not in physical danger, but rather when we are simply thinking about or worrying about stressful events. This is why Robert Sapolsky, a Neuroendrocrinlogist, writes that we are more likely to get an ulcer than a zebra. Although zebras live very stressful lives spending the majority of the time out running predators they don’t sit around and worry like we do. They don’t consume themselves thinking about the next attack or the rent, or retirement or what to say on a first date, or running late to a meeting or what it means to get a letter from the IRS in the mail.  However, humans worry about these things. Each time we do, our body responds as if we are under attack even if the threat is only in our heads. Our bodies respond as if we are being chased by a hungry lion.  

When we perceive a threat, there is the release of stress hormones which trigger a cascade of events.  For example, our pupils dilate so we can take in more light and information and the hair on our body stands erect so we are more sensitive to vibrations. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing all increase so that nutrients and oxygen can be transported faster to the muscles. Another aspect of the stress response is that during a crisis, the body shuts down sending energy to systems that aren’t vital for survival at that moment. Things like digestion, reproduction, immune functioning take a hit.  

The good news is, human beings are incredibly resilient to stress; the downside, chronic exposure to stress increases our risk of getting diseases. Additionally, if we already have a disease, stress increases the risk that our defenses will be overwhelmed by that disease. Stress also impacts the quality of our life and our sense of well being.  It is vital that we learn to work with our minds and our bodies to decrease the impact that stress takes on our lives. 

Knowing how stress may be impacting your life can be a useful first step to making changes.  There are a number of assessment tools available online. Included here is the Perceived Stress Scale. This is one of the most commonly used tools to measure the degree in which events and situations in your life may be perceived as stressful. Circle the number that best reflects your answer.

Perceived Stress Scale
0 = Never
1 = Almost Never
2 = Sometimes
3 = Fairly Often 
4 = Very Often

1.  In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly? 

0  1  2  3  4

2.  In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?

0  1  2  3  4

3. In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and “stressed”? 

0  1  2  3  4

4. In the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?

0  1  2  3  4

5. In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way? 

0  1  2  3  4

6. In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do? 

0  1  2  3  4

7. In the last month, how often have you been able to control irritations in your life? 

0  1  2  3  4

8. In the last month, how often have you felt that you were on top of things? 

0  1  2  3  4

9. In the last month, how often have you been angered because of things that were outside of your control? 

0  1  2  3  4

10. In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them? 

0  1  2  3  4


First, reverse your scores for questions 4, 5, 7, & 8. On these 4 questions, change the scores like this: 0 = 4, 1 = 3, 2 = 2, 3 = 1, 4 = 0.  

Now add up your scores for each item to get a total. My total score is ______.  

Individual scores on the PSS can range from 0 to 40 with higher scores indicating higher perceived stress.  

Scores ranging from 0-13 would be considered low stress.  

Scores ranging from 14-26 would be considered moderate stress.  

Scores ranging from 27-40 would be considered high perceived stress.  

Printable Copy:
Perceived Stress Scale

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Shelly is passionate about helping others create lives that bring a sense of fulfillment and purpose. She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and received her Masters Degree in Educational Psychology. She has 30+ years in clinical practice as a Psychotherapist and for the last 20 years has worked at Providence Behavioral Health. She has been a long time practitioner of Vipassana meditation and is a qualified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Facilitator. She is the owner of Professional Stress Solutions and helps provide stress management training to businesses and groups in the community. Shelly is a celebrated author of the book, A Mother's Meditations: Teachings of the Heart. She describes herself as meaningfully married to her husband and is the mother of two boys. In addition to her husband and children, she lives with two neurotic yet lovable dogs. Shelly will be teaching the 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at Yoga for Mental Health starting in September. This is one of the most highly researched and scientifically validated approaches to reducing stress. Spots are limited so sign up today!


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