Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Your phone dings with another reminder of an event you forgot about. With all the things you have “to do” this one fell through the cracks. Now you’re distracted from what you had intended to do with the morning. Scrambling to put out this fire, you feel like you have no stress tolerance at all.
If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association over 75% of adults report symptoms of stress. In fact they refer to it as a mental health crisis.
People stress about all sorts of things such as:
- The economy
- Personal responsibilities
However, some people have a low stress tolerance problem that causes them to over stress. In fact, it is estimated that 10% of the population have a low stress tolerance. The effects can be devastating to your health, but what is a low stress tolerance exactly?
What is Stress Tolerance?
Stress results when you face a situation and react to it with a negative attitude about it. Your stress tolerance is low when you have negative emotions such as bitterness, hopelessness, hostility or anxiety.
Once you reach the level where you get overwhelmed your stress tolerance level has been reached. Negative attitudes and reactions will start to set in.
Why do we stress?
Some stress is actually good for you. It can be exciting or even thrilling for certain people. Consequently, people with a high stress tolerance can stay calm where others would start with negative thoughts and emotions under the same stress.
Finding your sweet spot for how much stress you can endure without reacting negatively is key for optimal health.
What Are Three Stages of Stress?
It is important to understand how stress works in order to better deal with it. There are three important stages to stress: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.
The first perception of something as stressful. Your body starts a fight or flight response before you’re even consciously aware of it.
When the stress continues, the body stays in the fight or flight mode for a prolonged period. This results in an increased metabolic rate.
After a prolonged fight or flight response nutrients needed to maintain health have been used up. The body needs calm to get back to rest and repair mode.
Most people cycle through the three stages of stress without realizing it. Even though there is no real physical danger of being harmed. However, emotional triggers are causing us to react like your being chased by a sabor tooth tiger.
Over time, going past our stress tolerance level wears on the body and leads to numerous health problems.
What Are Emotional Signs of Stress?
Emotions play a large part our overall stress tolerance. If you are not very emotional your stress tolerance will be higher than someone who gets fired up easily.
Most people do not realize that your subconscious mind (the things you do without thinking about them) makes up 95% of your thoughts. Conversely, the conscious mind (the things you put thought into) is only 5%. Therefore, if subconsciously you react emotionally your stress tolerance is going to be low.
Here are some emotional signs of stress you should lookout for:
- Constant worry
- Poor sleep
- Bad decisions
- Memory problems
- Consistently overwhelmed
Keep in mind you can change your subconscious mind by changing your habits. This will increase your stress tolerance, more on that below.
Why is Stress Tolerance Important?
Stress is a signal your body is giving you that needs to be listened to. When triggered by stress your body releases the hormone cortisol and a neurotransmitter called adrenaline. While helpful in the short term these substances damage your health in the long run.
That is why you need to know about your stress tolerance level. In general low vs high stress tolerance look like this:
Low stress tolerance
- Inherited condition
- Can start in teens
- Caffeine use can make worse
- Prescription drugs may impact
High stress tolerance
- Find thrill in high pressure situation
- Rise to the challenge stress presents
- Unlikely to be emotional
- Have tactics to deal with stress
Drawbacks of high stress tolerance
Just like anything else in life, too much of a good thing can become a problem. The same is true with a high stress tolerance.
Identifying the source of stress and dealing with is is a skillset those with high stress tolerance struggle with. Some other drawbacks of high stress tolerance include:
- Resistance to asking for help
- Lack of empathy for others who deal have low stress tolerance
You may also be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The good news is if you are low or mid range in stress tolerance you can increase it. To understand how lets look at how stress tolerance is measured.
How is Stress Tolerance Measured?
You probably can tell you are under stress, but how do you determine how much you’re feeling? How do you know if that is more or less than “normal”? Stress tolerance is best measured using a tool called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS).
This scale measures the psychological component of stress. Meaning the part related to your mind, not the body. It is important to measure this because your subconscious mind is usually the culprit in stress and low stress tolerance. PSS is the most widely used tool for measuring stress.
Research has shown there is strong evidence linking stress to many diseases. Therefore, doctors will often not measure stress and instead hand out prescriptions for medications to help reduce anxiety. The problem with this is it misses the chance to identify ways to you can manage stressful situations.
Using the PSS allows you to identify key aspects of their daily lives that can be modified such as:
- Uncontrollable stressors
- Stress from overloaded schedules
- Dealing with life’s unpredictables
Determine Your Stress Tolerance
Stress is subjective meaning we can’t measure it with a lab or reading like is done with your blood pressure. That is where the PSS comes in to measure perceived stress. The questions below make up the test and you simply add up your scores using this scale.
For each question use these answer choices:
0 – Never 1 – Almost never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly often 4 – Very often
- In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?
- During the last month, how often have you felt that your were unable to control the important things in your life?
- In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed?
- During the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?
- In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?
- During the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?
- In the last month, how often have you been able to control irritations in your life?
- During the last month, how often have you felt that you were on top of things?
- In the last month, how often have you been angered because of things that happened that were outside of your control?
- During the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?
Add up your score
To determine your score simply add up the number you assigned to each question. However, for questions 4, 5, 7, and 8 change the score as follows:
- 0 change to 4
- 1 change to 3
- 2 stays 2
- 3 change to 1
- 4 change to 0
The table below shows what your perceived stress is based on your score. Understanding how you perceive your life is the first step in managing your stress tolerance.
How Can I Increase My Stress Tolerance?
Now that you know your perceived stress score, you might be wanting to improve your stress tolerance. The good news is you CAN do it. Below are some ways to shift your mindset and better manage stress so you perceive everything as less stressful.
Physical symptoms often show with your emotions such as: clenched jaw, twitch, sweating, stomach in knots. Identify these signs and realize you need to take 3 deep breaths. Afterwards, jot down what it was that made you so emotional.
These emotions are your signs of stress. The thing that made you so emotional is your agents of stress.
Take time to think through and thoroughly answer the following questions.
- What part of the situation was causing stress?
- Is my self talk really true?
- Ask others who were involved to get their perception of the event and compare that to your self talk answer.
- What could I do differently in the future to not react so emotionally?
We all have self talk that tells us we are not good enough, don’t belong or are an imposter. That coupled with the fact that we all inflate how much attention others actually pay to us. When you think your and imposter and everyone is watching you stress mounts.
Realize that other people are more concerned about themselves than you. Also, everyone feels imposter syndrome, just like you.
Flip the script on your inner critic and think about:
- What you did that was good enough
- Other people are tuned into the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) radio station and are not worried about you
As you do this exercise to reflect and grow your going to get better at stress management. That will no doubt improve your stress tolerance.
The other affect most don’t realize will happen at the same time is you will grow your self confidence. The more you learn about yourself the more you put your conscious mind in control. The decreases in stress and growth in confidence will grow and start to snowball over time.
A great way to track this is to take the PSS score again each month. Keep a log of your scores over several months and see how they improve. Before you know it you will have increased your stress tolerance!
Lifestyle Changes To Improve Stress Tolerance
In addition to reflecting on your emotional reactions to stressful situations there are other stress remedies.
You may not realize that your lifestyle habits can lead to stress. For example, staying up late watching a Netflix series makes you tired the next day. Then you have brain fog and can’t think clearly. This causes you to miss getting a project completed, which triggers stress.
Avoiding these scenarios that have been proven to lead to stress is a surefire way to increase stress tolerance.
|Habit||Why it matters|
|1||A positive attitude|
Your thoughts produce emotions and emotions affect your behavior. Changing your mindset can have a profound impact on emotions and decrease stress levels.
As infamous inspirational leader Zig Ziglar said “Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.”
|2||Eating good food|
Most people do not realize the impact food has on your body. Highly processed sugary foods can lead to energy spikes and then drop-offs.
Research has now shown that eating high sugar foods causes decreased mood, increase anxiety and depression while also suppressing your ability to deal with stress. Eating whole foods, high in vitamins and minerals can have the opposite effects.
|3||Getting quality sleep|
Sleep is the time the body uses to repair the damage that happens during the day. If you don’t sleep the repair can’t happen and stress increases while your health declines.
There is no pharmaceutical pill that has anywhere near as many positive health effects as physical activity. This holds true for coping with stress as well.
Exercise of any kind helps release endorphins (feel good hormones) that have been shown to improve mood. Endorphins can also promote relaxation another stress reliever.
Worrying about things you can’t control only increases stress. In addition it can make you more anxious and rob you from the joys of life.
Most worry is just repetitive negative thinking. Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself worrying.
1. Do others worry about this as much as I do?
2. Is this worry helping me or hurting me?
3. Can I really control it?
|6||Look at the big picture|
What impact does this stressful event really have on the rest of your life? Will you even remember this in 5 or 10 years?
Ask yourself these questions to understand if this really impacts the big picture of your life. If the answer is no, spend less time stressing about it. If it is yes, devise a plan to deal with it.
|7||Limit caffeine intake|
Both caffeine and stress can increase the “stress hormone” called cortisol. Therefore, prolonged use of high amounts of caffeine act like stress on your body.
The amount of caffeine used is important. Lower doses have been shown to have positive health effects. However, if you feel jittery and anxious you should probably look at how much caffeine you get throughout the day.
Caffeine use should be restricted to earlier in the day. It says in the body and can affect sleep if taken in the afternoon or evening.
|8||Listen to upbeat music|
Music can be a great way to help relieve stress. Upbeat music can positively impact emotions and make you more optimistic.
In fact studies have found that music can change brain function. One study found that music can be just as effective as medication at changing brainwave function.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation technique. It is simply training your attention to achieve a state of calm concentration and positive emotions.
Using a daily meditation practice has a huge amount of research showing its benefits. The positive effects include:
It is believed that all these positive effects are a result of mindfulness meditation being able to lower stress levels.
|10||Recovery time||Some stressful situations can’t be avoided. When that is the case it is important to make sure to take time to recover from the stress. |
For example, if you know work is going to be stressful the week a project is due then you need to plan some recovery time. Make sure the weekend is stress free as much as possible and spend doing things you enjoy. Remember that drinking, smoking, overeating and staying up late are also stressors on your body.
Getting your thoughts down on paper can be a great way to improve stress tolerance. Studies have shown that practicing regular journaling helps with anxiety, depression and can even improve memory and your immune system.
Anytime you can reduce anxiety your stress levels will also be lowered. There are many different ways to get your thoughts out on paper if your not into writing. Bullet journaling is one type of short form method.
|12||Check blood sugar|
When your blood sugar level takes major swings up and down that is a stressor on your body. Knowing what foods cause big blood sugar swings and avoiding them is a good idea.
Even if you’re not a diabetic it might be worth it to test blood sugar. This could help you prevent food related stress, that many people don’t even realize they have.
|13||Avoid negative people|
People who are “hard to get along with” can cause you to stress. Negative emotions cause a stress response in the body.
Identify these people in your life and minimize your interaction with them.
|14||Learn to say “No”|
Many people are stressed because they commit all their time to certain activities. When you have no down time to relax, reflect and enjoy life your going to be stressed.
Learning to say no is a hard skill to learn. However, it is vital if you really want to limit stress. Unless something is a key part of helping you achieve your biggest goals in life then you should say no to it.
Having many things that are only partially done is a major stressor. Similarly having too many decisions to make can also produce stress.
Time management has been shown to be one of the best ways to combat stress. You eliminate the distractions that eat up time and prevent you from getting things done when you plan. As Ben Franklin said “failing to plan is planning to fail.”
Boost Your Stress Tolerance and Live Better
You have taken the first step by reading this of acknowledging stress tolerance is important. Keep the momentum going by measuring your stress tolerance level.
Next pick a few ways to improve your stress tolerance. Work through them and give yourself time to practice the tactics.
Finally, take a look at lifestyle habit changes you could implement. Focus on how you can improve your stress tolerance with these ideas. Ultimately, improving your stress tolerance will help you live longer and have a better quality of life.
Click here to get Dr. Jason Reed’s exclusive list of medication questions you MUST ask your doctor, for FREE!
Share Your Story
Do you have a high stress tolerance? Chime in below with your comments and thoughts.
Crosswell, Alexandra et. al. Best practices for stress measurement: how to measure psychological stress in health research. Health Psychol Open. 2020 Jul;7(2): 70-72.
Yaribeygi, Habib et. al. The impact of stress on body function: A review. Excli J. 2017 Jul;16(4): 1057-1072.