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Can you measure the level of stress?

If you have the feeling of living under pressure and increasingly stressed, the data confirms your suspicion. At present, an important part of the population suffers stress and, although there are several triggers, the bulk is concentrated in the work. Spain is, in fact, the European country with the highest rates of work-related stress. The INE not only includes that it affects 6 out of 10 workers, it also breaks down the average level of stress by the professional situation and by sex. On a scale from 1 to 7 – where 1 means “nothing stressful” and 7, “very stressful” -, we stand, on average, at 4.18. The most affected people are professionals or businessmen with salaried employees.

Other studies place the incidence of stress in 71% of the population, mention that work is responsible for a quarter of the cases and even describe the so-called holiday stress, which people suffer when they least expect it: in periods of a break. The most frequent symptoms “affect cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral aspects,” summarizes psychologist Sílvia Sumell Canada. Attention and memory problems, tiredness, difficulty sleeping, appetite disturbances (due to increase or decrease) or lack of energy are some of them.

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“While working at a fast pace, cortisol and adrenaline levels (the two stress-related hormones) are high. Adrenaline makes our immune system stronger and cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory, all so we can endure long days. Instead, when we enter ‘holiday mode’ these hormone levels decrease, so that our immune system becomes depressed and we can get sick more easily or have some health problems, “says Sumell Calanda, who is also a professor of the Studies of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the Open University of Catalonia ( UOC ).

But what exactly is stress? The Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress ( SEAS ) describes it as an overload for the individual. An overload that depends, on the one hand, on the demands of the situation and, on the other, on the resources available to the person to cope with it. On the contrary, if they perceive that these consequences will be harmful, the stress will be negative.” What they both have in common is that they cause physical reactions, such as fatigue or physiological activation.

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Measure stress levels
Sometimes we use or hear expressions like “I am very stressed,” “these days are being particularly stressful” or “I have a little stress.” That is, in addition to recognizing it, we have in mind some kind of range that allows us to adject it according to its intensity. But, beyond the colloquial, there are ways to measure it.

One of them is the Stress Assessment Test, a hormonal test developed by the European laboratories Synlab, which measures the presence of two hormones: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in saliva. “The body produces cortisol, a hormone that prepares the body to cope with a situation of punctual stress. However, sustained cortisol production can be harmful and, to counteract this harmful effect, the body produces another hormone called DHEA. Stress assessment evaluates the production of cortisol and DHEA, through saliva samples collected at different times of the day, and allows the person who performs it to know their current biological capacity to respond to stress, “explain its creators.

Another way to measure it is through Stress Visualization Experience. This tool developed by the American Cigna analyzes physical parameters to know the level of stress to which a person is subjected. Specifically, through sensors that are placed on the head and hands, it measures heart rate, brain waves and sweating , and relates the three indicators. But the novelty is that the test combines that biomedical data with digital art: the markers allow to create a graphic image of the stress levels by means of a heat map (the cold colors reveal lower levels; the warm ones show the highest).

Attention to these signals
Stress is a natural response of our body to situations that it perceives as a challenge, an alarm or a problem. To cope with it, try to adapt to these situations, and this involves starting a series of physiological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes. The goal is to solve that challenge or threat. Once resolved, everything returns to normal. The problem arises when it is not possible to control the situation. In these cases, the processes remain active for a long period and can become chronic.

Beyond the medical and technological innovations, there are some signs related to the stress that all people should take into account and, if necessary, consult with the doctor:

Negative emotions: prolonged states of hopelessness, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, fear, nervousness, confusion …
Lack of concentration and bad thoughts: difficulty making decisions, forgetting and frequent distractions, repetitive and circle thoughts, anticipation of negative events, excessive self-criticism …
Physical disorders: tiredness and lack of general energy, difficulties in falling or staying asleep, stomach upset, changes in appetite, diarrhea or constipation, increased sweating, headaches, dry mouth, muscle contractures, back problems or neck, flu or continuous colds, tachycardia, agitated breathing, dermatitis or dry skin, shortness of breath …
Changes in behavior: eating more (or less) than before, stuttering or other speech difficulties, clenching the jaws, easy or frequent crying, impulsivity, abrupt treatment of others, sleeping more (or less) hours, resorting to alcohol or drugs to relax, lower academic or work performance …

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