Measuring stress

Ruth Spence Middlesex UniversityRuth Spence is a research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Middlesex and a member of the team in the University’s Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS). She is involved in a research study looking at new ways of measuring stress.

The Computerised Life Event Assessment Record (CLEAR) research study at CATS is an ESRC-funded project in collaboration with colleagues from Kings College London and Goldsmiths. We are working on developing a new online methodology for measuring stressful ‘life events’.  These are unpleasant events that lead to an objective change in your life, like losing your job, failing an exam or getting divorced, and they’ve been found to be an important factor in the development of depression. In fact, the sort of life events most likely to bring about depression are the ones the individual considers to be both negative and severe.

Currently, they are often poorly measured.  Most studies use checklists where you simply tick if an event has occurred or not, but what may be surprising is this doesn’t really tell you much. The context and meaning of an event is incredibly important. Take pregnancy for instance: someone in poor health who accidentally got pregnant may feel very differently about their pregnancy to someone whose IVF treatment has been finally been successful.

Methodological limitations

So although life event checklists are quick and easy to administer they are subject to serious methodological limitations compromising the quality of the data gathered. Questionnaire approaches tend to lack clarity about the meaning of life events for different individuals in different contexts and underestimate the presence of stressors by overly summarising the range of events possible. For instance one popular checklist contains the item “something you valued was stolen or lost”, but both losing a favourite jumper and having your car stolen could be rated ‘yes’ – even though one seems much worse than the other.

In person semi-structured interviews, the most widely used of which is the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule (LEDS), were developed to combat these limitations and encourage narrative accounts eliciting the full social context of events. LEDS has the capacity to enquire about a large number of events and attempts to deal with the meaning of events for particular individuals through collecting contextually relevant information such as biography and current circumstances surrounding the event. These interviews are considered the ‘gold standard’ for measuring life stress and are more reliable and valid than the checklist approach.

The problem with using life stress interviews comes from their time-consuming and labour intensive nature. It has been estimated to take an average of 16 hours to conduct and rate one LEDS interview, making this approach an unattractive alternative to checklists for most research studies. It seems that an approach is needed that contains the reliability and validity benefits of a face-to-face interview but is also a more economical approach to investigating stress prevalence and its causal relationship to disorder.

Stress - madstreetz

Stress – Photo by madstreetz (Creative Commons 2.0)

Utilising the internet

The CLEAR system will be a web-based assessment that individuals can complete in their own time, which will be convenient, have the ability to overcome geographical barriers, lower delivery costs and reduce demands on the workforce. It can also be answered anonymously and will provide personalised feedback. This will be the first sophisticated technological application of social risk assessment for factors such as stressful life events.

The system will use a variety of video instruction; dynamic calendar and menus that change in response to the information entered; text boxes for longer, more detailed answers that can be reviewed by the researcher; and sophisticated algorithms to automatically score events. It is hoped that the CLEAR system will be a useful compromise between checklist and interview approaches; overcoming some of the limitations of life events questionnaires while reducing the burden inherent in a face-to-face interview.

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