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Perceived Stress: Real or imagined?

April 28, 2017

The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine defines perceived stress as “feelings or thoughts that an individual has about how much stress they are under at a given point in time or over a given time period”.


Our modern day lifestyle of a never-ending to-do list is blurred into work commitments (9 to 5 is not so much a reality these days), and the demands of home, relationships and social lives. This can lead to feelings of stress because there is so much to do and so little time to achieve it – or so our mind tells us.


Perceived stress is not about the types or frequencies of stressful events but “rather how an individual feels about the general stressfulness of their life and their ability to handle such stress”.


It comes down to our thought process and self-talk. If our busyness becomes negative self-talk, our body responds in fight or flight mode, and we feel stress. The more we repeat and build on these negative thoughts, the more our stress increases and lengthens. This impacts our wellbeing (sleep, mood, appetite, etc.) with studies* suggesting that ongoing high levels of perceived stress lead to anxiety and depression.


It is good to remember, stress is not a bad thing. We need it for our survival, to respond to danger and keep us alert and focused when needed. But, we are not wired to be in this constant fight or flight mode. Once the stressor has passed, our bodies and minds want to return to safe mode known as rest and digest.


For example, we need a level of stress to sit an exam or give a speech but once it is done, the sense of relief and relaxation sets in restoring us to our natural state. Unfortunately, for some of us, our thinking to move on to the next task ensures our mind continues to perceive stress and our body kicks in to keep us there – adrenalin pumping and ready to act.


Our body receives what our mind believes! Real or imagined.



Reframing is a great way to help reduce the stress that can build when we are busy. Next time you feel the cortisol rising because of your to-do list, try reframing your thoughts to positive ones, e.g. “I’m not stressed, just busy”. Smiling whilst saying this also helps.


Try the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) at This is a widely used psychological scale consisting of a 10 question survey, and it provides an indication of your own perception of how stressed you are. This site also provides sources, tools and tips for managing stress.


Note: If you your PPS is high, we suggest you check in with your GP to ensure your stress is not manifesting into something that requires more specialised management.



* Wiegner L, Hange D, Björkelund C. and Ahlborg G, 2015, ‘Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care-an observational study’, BMC Family Practice, vol. 16, no.1, p.38.

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