The difference between stress and perceived stress

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Health Assured team

30 September 2019

It’s a natural reaction and it’s not necessarily a bad thing—we’ve covered stress before. But there are a couple of different types that are important to know about.

This post is a brief guide to perceived stress—what it is, how it differs from ‘ordinary’ stress, and how you can keep it under control.

What is perceived stress?

Perceived stress isn’t real. Well, it is, but it isn’t—and it’s not as complex as it sounds. Let’s start by talking about actual stress.

Stress is your body’s reaction to change that requires a response. Those changes can be physical, mental or emotional, and can come from your environment, your body or your thoughts. There are many causes of stress, such as

  • Big life changes and upheaval.
  • A lack of control over important things.
  • Too much work—or even not enough.

All of these are based in reality. If you have too much work to do, and you can’t keep on top of your tasks, what you feel is actual stress.

Perceived stress is different. It’s more about your feelings about the lack of control and unpredictability than the actual stressors.

If you find your thoughts spiralling into what could happen, and decide that awful things are inevitable, that’s the meaning of perceived stress.

The problem is it’s just as negative and the effects are negative. If you’re spending hours worrying about what could be, you’re causing the same physical, mental and emotional problems as you would be worrying about that massive workload we mentioned earlier.

Perceived work stress is a serious issue. It can cause:

Some of these are direct effects of stress, and some are unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s important then, to be aware of stress and keep it under control.

The Perceived Stress Scale (PBS)

Developed in the early 1980s, it’s a measure of the degree of stress a person feels about their life.

It tests how unpredictable, overwhelming and uncontrollable the subject feels their last 30 days have been.

This sounds quite harsh, but it’s possible to measure no stress at all with this test—it’s a sliding scale. There are 10 questions and respondents answer each with a number from zero to four. These indicate how often the respondent felt or thought a certain way.

Here are some examples of the questions:

  • “In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?”
  • “In the last month, how often have you felt on top of things?”
  • “In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things you had to do?”

Your responses give a stress score at the end, which rates your perceived stress levels from low to high. You can take this test online—it only lasts a few minutes.

Talk to the experts

If you find your perceived stress levels are higher than you thought, help is at hand.

Health Assured are experts at coping with stress—browse our site for more articles and guidance, or talk to a wellbeing expert today on 0844 892 2493

We support employees mental wellbeing with any problems they might be facing in their professional or personal lives with our 24-hour counselling helpline.


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