What kind of stressometer do you have?

Stress gets a bad rap. But according to Craig N. Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, stress doesn't always deserve the negative connotation.

"Stress helps to motivate us," he says. "It helps us to get things done. It helps power us through various things."

For example, a looming deadline at work can give you the challenge you need to focus. Some athletes even find that pregame jitters provide the boost of energy they need to play their best.

But like all things in life, too much of a good thing can be a problem. When stress builds up, it can damage health, relationships and quality of life.

How do you know when you've hit your limit? Everyone has an internal alarm that goes off when stress becomes too much. According to Dr. Sawchuk, there are 4 types of alarms that make up your "stressometer." Figuring out which type you have can narrow down which stress management strategies might work for you.


If you have a physical stressometer, you feel it — you guessed it — in your body. Headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension and sleep disruptions are common signs and symptoms.

The way you move, eat and sleep can help your body feel more at ease, even when life gets hectic. Try these tips:

  • Exercise in a way you enjoy, whether it's line dancing or simple yoga poses.
  • Eat colorful plates of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Avoid substances that can disrupt sleep, like nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.
  • Tuck in at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time each morning.


Does chaos make you edgy and irritable? If you snap at your partner for forgetting to start the dishwasher, ask yourself whether stress is affecting your mood.

Relaxation strategies can be helpful for calming an emotional stressometer. Yoga, massage and calming music can all take the edge off when emotions run hot.

Dr. Sawchuk also suggests focused breathing exercises. Try this:

  • Put 1 hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to fill with air.
  • Exhale through your nose.
  • As you breathe in and out, focus on shifting your breath so you can feel it in your belly rather than in your chest.
  • Take 3 more slow, deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen.


Racing thoughts, worry and difficulty concentrating are hallmark signs of stress that shows up in the way you think.

Reframing stressors in a more flexible light is one strategy for turning those thoughts around. Unexpected road construction has you running late for work? Remind yourself it's likely your boss will understand. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to catch up on your favorite podcast.

You can also jot down worries in a notebook. "Sometimes being able to journal the worries — writing them down in ways to challenge ourselves to look at things more flexibly — can be helpful," says Dr. Sawchuk.


Sometimes when stress picks up, so do bad habits. Having a little too much to drink, skipping breakfast and even withdrawing from others are red flags for people with a stressometer that impacts their behavior.

Asking for support from loved ones can pull you out of a slump. Having an accountability buddy to share meal plans, exercise with or even just check in with can be a strong motivator to stay on the right track.

And if stress has you canceling plans and turning off your phone? Dr. Sawchuk says, "If we find that we're withdrawing more, then it's important for us to pay attention to that and to set goals of reaching out to others in our lives."

The bottom line

"Stress is part of being alive," says Dr. Sawchuk. "But if you find that your mood or stress levels are getting to the point where they get in the way of being able to take care of normal things…those are good times to reach out."

He recommends talking to a primary care provider, who can help connect you with local resources or a therapist.

  1. Mayo Clinic News Network. Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast: Mental health and coping during the pandemic. Mayo Clinic; 2020. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-qa-podcast-mental-health-and-coping-during-the-pandemic/. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021
  2. Howland J. Tips for managing stress. Mayo Clinic. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/tips-for-managing-stress/. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021.
  3. Stress basics. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021.
  4. Sleep tips: 6 tips to better sleep. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/sleep/art-20048379. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021.
  5. Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021.
  6. Decrease stress by using your breath. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/decrease-stress-by-using-your-breath/art-20267197. Accessed Nov. 19, 2021.
  7. Coping with stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/cope-with-stress/index.html. Accessed Nov. 22, 2021.
  8. Wang F, et al. Effects of yoga on stress among healthy adults: A systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2020;26:AT6214.