How awareness of stress and distress can help you live and love more successfully- Part I

 How well do you understand your own stress? Most people don’t consciously differentiate levels in their stress. It’s usually a clean dichotomy of “I’m really stressed,” or “I am totally calm.” But our stress really comes in levels and there are many shades of gray. So what’s the problem with a “black and white” understanding of our stress?

When we are NOT aware of the levels of our stress, we tend to feel powerless over our stress; and

We aren’t aware we can influence some control over our own mental and emotional state.

The reality is that our levels of stress or distress are on a continuum. Using a SUDS can help us keep distress levels in perspective- “Ok, I am stressed out, but I’m only a 40, I can still handle it.” Or, “Oh boy, I am stressed. I am about a 70, so I should stop and do my relaxing techniques so I can calm myself and do what I need to more easily.”

SUDS stands for Subjective Units of Distress Scale

100 Highest anxiety/distress that you have ever felt
90 Extremely anxious/distressed
80 Very anxious/distressed, unable to concentrate
70 Quite anxious/distressed, interfering with performance
50 Moderate anxiety/distress, uncomfortable but can continue to perform
30 Mild anxiety/distress, no interference on performance
20 Minimal anxiety/distress
10 Alert and awake, concentrating well
0 Totally relaxed


The SUDS is a means of rating the severity of our current distress (anxiety, stress) which allows us to understand and monitor distress changes over different periods of time. It is useful to have a way of measuring our level of distress or anxiety. Then, you and I can become more in touch with our feelings, and can control them more effectively.


First, some definitions of stress and distress are in order. They often are used interchangeably, but in reality are not the same things. Distress is extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. It is uncomfortable, upsetting and closely linked to anxiety. It often signals that we are hurt, or are afraid to be hurt, in some way. Stress on the other hand is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.


Cortisol is released during stressful times to give your body a natural energy boost. It’s a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress. It’s sometimes called the “stress hormone.” Because levels of cortisol in the body spike during times of high stress as part of the body’s fight-or-flight response.

What’s the problem? With our ever-stressed, fast-paced lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, which can be terrible for our health. And in terms of our romantic or love relationships we can get the “amygdala hijack” where our Limbic system diminishes our ability to be understanding, empathetic and compassionate. We can’t have a good and loving conversation. So, we get sharp with each other, say things we don’t want to, and we fight. We hurt each other.

So, understanding our subjective stress level can tell us when we are getting too close to becoming emotionally aroused, and we can use a strategy for slowing down and calming ourselves. Some options include praying, meditating, exercise, taking a break, a mindfulness exercise or a breathing or muscle relaxation exercise.  Here is a simple breathing exercise you can try.


  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
  • Close your eyes and think about your breathing. Take several slow, deep breaths, finding a comfortable, regular pace. Ten deep breaths a minute is a good choice.
  • As you continue to breathe slowly and evenly, mentally scan your body, looking for any areas of tension. The face, jaw, neck, shoulders, and back are common trouble spots. When you find an area that’s tense, deliberately tighten the muscles in that area, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then release them. Do it again-tighten, hold, and release. This will leave your muscles feeling more relaxed than when you began.
  • Now relax each of those areas of your body by imagining that it’s very heavy. As you envision gravity’s pull, let your muscles relax and let the tension dissipate.
  • Next, imagine that each of those muscle areas is very warm. Imagine that you’re basking in the sun or sitting near a warm, relaxing fireplace. As you grow warmer, even more tension will flow away.
  • Continue to relax by envisioning a place that’s especially safe and restful to you. Maybe it’s a warm beach, a quiet mountaintop, or a secluded forest. Stay in this place for a few minutes, noticing the details of your surroundings, enjoying its peace and solitude.

Each time you do this exercise, your image of this setting will come more easily to you. Soon, simply thinking of it may help you to automatically relax.

Check out next week’s blog: Awareness of Stress Part II: How Using the SUDS Helps Us in Our Relationships