A Scale Model for Stress

Beating Stress by Balancing Personal Capital and Personal Goals

A few days ago we participated in a Wellness activity in which the topic was dealing with stress. This is a very important topic. If there’s anything that can be said about your generation it’s that it is stressed out. Frankly, that’s our fault! Our schools, via current economic realities as well as misguided policies created by elected officials have increased the stakes as well as the burdens associated with being in school. Then there’s the fact that we are perpetually networked and in a constant state of presentation to others–which is exhausting, but a post for another day.

Regardless, young people now, more than ever, must find ways to deal with stress. I’m afraid watching videos about “resiliency” and thinking about the things that cause you stress and writing a “plan” for dealing with it…um…doesn’t quite go far enough. It seemed a bit squishy to me.

So, in class I supplemented what the video was talking about by offering what I think is a more concrete and workable approach to understanding what stress is, recognizing it, and focusing on plans for dealing with it. I figured I would take a minute and elaborate on it here.

First, I like to have something to visualize when I’m trying to understand an abstraction like “stress”. I find a good analogy to use is a scale.

On one side of the scale we have what can be called Personal Capital. On the other side of the scale we have what can be called Personal Goals and Expectations.

Personal Capital?

I’m a sociologist, so I see things in terms of sociological theories (go figure). When I’m talking about personal capital I’m drawing and innovating on the theories of philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Personal capital is the resources, both external and internal, that you have for achieving your goals and expectations. External capital is things like money and wealth, social networks, and status. Internal capital has to do with personal energy, intellect, aptitude, and drive.

Personal capital can be divided into six categories:

Economic Capital: Economic Capital is exactly what it seems. This is money and wealth resources that you may have to help you accomplish your goals. It also includes the material resources that this money can get you. For instance, if you have enough money you can afford a better computer that might help you organize your life and get your homework done. This is a form of external capital.

Social Capital: Social Capital is a form of external capital that includes your networks and institutional supports. Family, education and school, your church community, your work resume–these are all examples of Social Capital. The bottom line is that people need other people if they are to fulfill their goals and expectations.

Cultural Capital: Cultural capital holds a mix of internal and external capital. It is your aptitude and knowledge of a given cultural environment. The components of culture are language, symbols, values, norms, and technology. Language is not just your ability to communicate, but to present that communication in a particular way. For instance, using high or proper speech gives you an advantage when it comes to accessing upper class social capital that someone who speaks in slang or colloquialisms is not able to get. On the other hand, being able to speak in slang may be beneficial in more colloquial environments. You ability to navigate a particular cultural environment without really thinking about it means that you have incorporated the cultural rules into your identity.

Emotional Capital: Emotional Capital is internal capital that represents the energy and focus that you have on reserve for achieving a goal. Obviously, those things you feel positively about tend to be energizing and help you sustain focus. Things that you have no particular feeling for are hard to concentrate on, while those things that you flat out dislike require great emotional energy to complete. This form of capital draws from Randall Collins‘ theory of Interaction Ritual Chains in which he introduces the concept of emotional energy. Emotional Capital is, in essence, the battery giving you the energy you need to get through your day.

Embodied Capital: Embodied Capital is your physical ability to achieve your goals. Obviously, if my goal is to be a brain surgeon, but my hands shake uncontrollably, I may want to re-evaluate my goals. If I want to be a professional athlete, I’ll have to shape my body intensively in order to achieve that goal. These are extreme examples. On a more mundane level, physical health is a factor in achieving one’s goals. It’s hard to work on your goals when you are in bed with the flu.

Temporal Capital: Temporal refers to time, so Temporal Capital is the time that you can dedicate to yourself and/or to the accomplishment of your goals. Often, Temporal Capital is the most difficult to manage. There are not enough hours in the day!

Personal Goals and Expectations?

Goals are aspirations for future outcomes. These goals can be broken down into Personal Goals and Personal Expectations. Personal Goals are self-generated. You have goals and aspirations that you would like to achieve for your own reasons and needs. Some of these goals are complex and long term. You may want to graduate college, or become a professional artist, or have a family. Some of these goals are mundane and short term. You want to write that short story that is in your head. You want to do some gardening this weekend. They are expressions of what you want. Your personal goals are things that you have more or less control over. You could, for instance, decide to forgo gardening for going to the beach with your friends. Or maybe it’s raining and you can’t satisfy the gardening goal, so you decide to read a book or play the guitar, or whatever.

Personal Expectations are different. These are goals that are imposed on you from outside sources. They may be larger social and cultural goals such as the need for a lucrative career. They may be more immediate goals. For instance, you may need to get that essay done for Mr. Andoscia’s class. You have to mow the lawn and give the dog a bath because that is part of your chores imposed by your parents. Your boss changed your work schedule at the last minute and now you need to go in to work on Saturday morning…forcing your to change your Friday partying goal. You have significantly less control over personal expectations.

Another factor related to Personal Goals and Expectations is Environmental Contingency. These contingencies are external factors that impact your ability to achieve your goals. You wanted to work in your garden, but it rained. Or, conversely, you weren’t going to work in the garden, but it turned out to be such a beautiful day that you changed your mind. Environmental contingencies are mostly out of your control, but not necessarily. They can be mitigated with enough planning.

The Scale Model of Managing Stress

Now that the model is set up, we can discuss a practical understanding of stress and a targeted general strategy for dealing with it. Stress, according to this model, can be defined as an imbalance between one’s Personal Capital and Personal Goals and Expectations. It works like this:

Take the first type of stress. This is the Stress of Unrealized Potential. I have quite a few students experiencing this kind of stress. It happens when one’s Personal Capital outweighs their Goals and Expectations:

Stress of Unrealized Potential

In this scenario, one’s Personal Capital far outweighs the goals that they have, either from the outside world, the Personal Expectations, or those set for themselves, the Personal Goals. If you’ve ever had a teacher or a significant adult in your life tell you that you have so much going for you, or so much potential, but you’re not using it to the best of your ability, this is Unrealized Potential.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to stressful. For some of us, this looks pretty nice. And the truth is, it is good and healthy to experience some time when we rest our Personal Capital and hold our Goals aloft for a bit. Doing so may give us an opportunity to recharge our “batteries” or re-evaluate our goals in light of our Capital.

Remaining in this arrangement, however, is ultimately stressful. Healthy people want to accomplish, want to work toward something. They want to challenge themselves to achieve. Unrealized Potential Imbalance, held too long, leads to stagnation. There may be some underlying stress that inhibits you from taking the first step toward realizing worthwhile goals. Sometime we perceive that first step as risky. We feel inadequate–like we are just not good enough, so why bother trying? Eventually, you find yourself in a position where your peers are achieving their goals, gaining personal status and position, but you are standing still. This can lead to isolation, which can be stressful and debilitating. Or it can lead one to find social acceptance among others with Unrealized Potential. This group may reinforce decisions to not achieve, but this only prolongs an unhealthy personal arrangement.

If your scale is tipped in such a way that you are feeling a lack of fulfillment, meaninglessness, inadequacy, like life is passing you by, it may be the Stress of Unrealized Potential. This may even manifest into depression. If this is the case, there are things you can do to get out of the “rut.” First, take inventory of your Personal Capital. What do you have going for you? And yes, you do have something going for you. Nobody has zero Capital! Nobody! Period! The first question you might ask is, what do I like to do? Take an inventory of the things you enjoy. If you can’t think of anything, you may need to seek a therapist or personal advisor who can help you figure it out. Then you can ask yourself, “how can I contribute or add to this thing I enjoy?” This isn’t just about doing what you enjoy. It’s about using your Personal Capital to add something to the world. So, if you love playing video games, and video games is something you are good at, simply playing video games is not going to solve this imbalance. You actually want to make playing video games something that works for you. Maybe learning code, or CGI might be something for you.

The bottom line is, if your Personal Capital outweighs your Personal Goals, you need to evaluate your goals and bulk them up. It’s not healthy to sit on Unrealized Potential.

However, the scenario that I see most often among my students, mostly in AICE, Honors, and Band is the opposite kind of stress. This is being Overwhelmed.

Being Overwhelmed

Being Overwhelmed means that your Personal Goals outweigh your Capital. Look, this happens and is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes being overwhelmed can help us find the limits of our Personal Capital and make us realize that we are capable of more than we thought. We all need to challenge our Personal Capital Muscles so to speak. Prolonged periods of being Overwhelmed, however, can be unhealthy, leading to anxiety related disorders.

If you are Overwhelmed, the first thing you might do is take a look at the circumstances. Is this a situation in which you just happen to have a bunch of Personal Expectations converging at the same time? If so, this situation will likely straighten itself out if you just get through this one stressful period. We all experience this. Your teachers all scheduled their exams or major projects in the same week, and your boss decided to up your hours. You had a cold last week (a loss of Embodied Capital) and now you are a week behind with all of this work sitting in front of you. This happens and the solution, very often, is just do the best you can to get through it. You might want to look at what’s expected and reorganize your time. You may have to prioritize the Expectations and put off some of the Personal Goals. It may require sacrificing some “recharge” time. Ultimately, however, you will get through this temporary imbalance and find yourself in a healthier situation on the other end.

If this is a chronic problem, however, there are two strategies that you can use.

First, you may want to re-evaluate your Personal Goals and Expectations. What are your priorities? Which of these Goals did you put on yourself, and can therefore give yourself a break on? Which Goals are Expectations from others that really cannot be altered? What are the Environmental Contingencies? Map it out. Create a timetable in which to organize your goals while also giving yourself time to rest. Where are these goals coming from?

A great example of this is the many students I’ve talked to who have established a goal to get their AA or AS degree in one year (a process that normally takes two years). That may be a great goal if you have Personal Capital, but why are you setting this goal? It may be worth it to you to get your two year degree in two years. Why rush? Now, maybe there’s a reason, but I would suggest really evaluating this thinking. Giving yourself realistic and sustainable goals is key.

On the other hand, you might re-evaluate and re-prioritize your Personal Goals and Expectations and find yourself still feeling Overwhelmed. Or maybe there are a lot more Expectations than Goals, in which case you don’t have a lot of control over how they are prioritized. In this case, your effective strategy is to increase your Personal Capital.

Personal Capital is not a static thing. You already know this. Sometimes, you just wake up in the morning and you are raring to go, ready to meet your day head on. You have plenty of energy and are looking forward to whatever challenges might meet you. Other days, you’d rather just stay in bed. This is Emotional Capital. Maybe you’ve expended a lot of Emotional Capital with your boyfriend, and now don’t have enough to put into going to Trig. Maybe you have a cold or sprained your ankle, Embodied Capital. Personal Capital is not a constant. It varies from day to day.

How do you increase Personal Capital?

When it comes to Economic Capital, that’s pretty easy to conceptualize. Make more money. That is, of course, easier to say than it is to do. That being said, there are some things that you can do to increase Economic Capital even if you don’t get that raise or promotion, or more hours at work (which tends to be a drain on Emotional Capital). For instance, you can take a look at your spending habits. Are you spending all of the money you make in a given period of time? If so, are there ways that you can put some money aside into a rainy day fund? Are you spending money on things that are of practical value, that you actually use, and make a meaningful contribution to your life, or are you spending frivolously?1

Cultural Capital can be built upon by enlarging your cultural experiences. This can be done by travelling, but it can also be done without leaving your community by engaging in a variety of cultural experiences, museums, plays, going to a five star restaurant, then going to the roadhouse. Having a diverse set of friends and acquaintances is another way to build cultural capital. Reading books and magazines also opens you up to different cultural experiences. YouTube and other media can be a valuable resource.2 Being able to communicate at diverse levels and navigate different norms and value systems is a huge advantage, especially in today’s world.

Technology is also a cultural tool. Learning how to do a variety of things from changing your tire to using a computer program, to doing carpentry and plumbing, are all ways of building cultural capital. The more you know, the more you can do for yourself. In my younger days, if I had to take my car to the mechanic, I would always watch what he did. That way, the next time I had that problem, I took care of it myself. That is expanding Cultural Capital.

Embodied Capital is one of the most neglected. We very often do not associate how our physical health translates into mental health, let alone to achieving our personal goals and living up to personal expectations. But they are all related. Your brain is, after all, a part of your body. Improving your physical health improves your brain health, which improves your mental health. Build your Embodied Capital by exercising, eating right. Avoid drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. See your doctor on a regular basis to help you manage your health. This is increasingly true as you get older and the aches and pains become more constant.

This sh*t is poison!

And here’s a bit of an aside. Whenever I talk about physical health with young people I have one massive piece of advice. Cut back on your sugar intake. Human beings evolved to process sugar from the foods we eat. We break carbohydrates down into sugar molecules to provide fuel for our cells. Processed sugar, however, is an entirely different fuel. If you dump jet fuel into your car engine, it will run like crazy…before breaking down irreparably. That’s what you are doing when you eat sugar.

A grown woman should have no more than 25 grams of sugar, that’s about six level teaspoons. A grown man should have no more than 35 grams, that’s a little more than eight teaspoons. To put this in context, one can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar! Some of you are drinking multiple cans a day! Don’t do that! The easiest way to cut down on sugar is to eliminate soft-drinks from your diet. You will be amazed at the health benefits of just doing this one thing. It will change your life. Then build from there.

Temporal Capital involves your time management skills. This is certainly not the first time you’re hearing about this. Time management can be absolutely invaluable to you, especially when it comes to satisfying Personal Expectations. You need to set time aside in your day to satisfy these expectations. The best way to do that is to create a schedule. Smartphones make this very easy to do. For myself, whenever something comes up that I have to remember or set time aside for, I put it in my phone. The rule is, if it’s not in my phone…it’s not happening.3

Temporal Capital is also important for building Emotional Capital. Emotional Capital is really your personal battery. It’s what gives you the energy to get through your day. Here’s a little known fact. Your brain uses up about twenty percent of your body’s energy–and that’s at rest. That doesn’t count the energy that your brain uses doing things like Trig, or carrying on a conversation, or studying or writing a blog post. That’s a lot of energy! If you want to sustain and grow Emotional Capital, you have to sustain and grow your Emotional Energy. You can do this by growing your physical energy, investing in Embodied Capital. That helps create the charge for your Emotional Energy. However, to sustain this, you need time to recharge. You need time not just to sleep, but also to process the things you’ve learned, the experiences you had, the emotions you felt. You need time to rest, unwind, pet your dog, doodle, meditate, strum your guitar mindlessly. You need to set time aside in which your mental engagement is reduced (it’s never stopped) and your body is relaxed.

One important step you can take is to put time aside to disengage from social media. Social media is interaction, which costs you mental and emotional energy, but often gives very little energy in return. Just as we all need time for ourselves, a time of solitude, we also need time disconnected from our networks. Get social media off of your phone. Put time frames around when you will engage with social media. Establish reality time, when you are not in the cyber-universe.

Meditating is also a great way to do this. Many people have enriched their lives by including a meditation regimen every day, even for just a few minutes. Personally, I’ve never gotten the hang of meditation. I wish I had, and maybe I’ll try again. Regardless, if meditation isn’t for you, what are some things you do that you find relaxing. I used to drive my car…but gasoline is a bit expensive. Now I like to garden. I’m physically engaged, but when I’m gardening I find myself sorting my thoughts, making sense of the things that I’ve experienced. Often, I find that I start coming up with ideas that I can later develop. If it’s something that helps you recharge your emotional batteries, it will help you deal with feeling overwhelmed.

This leave Social Capital. Social Capital is the people that you know and the networks that you have. These can be a really positive source of support when it comes to balancing your Personal Capital with your Personal Goals. There are many ways this can help. Hanging out with friends may be a great way to build Emotional Capital. You may be able to get a loan or access to a better job from your social networks, improving your Economic Capital.

The most important avenue by which Social Capital can provide balance is via a very difficult process called–ASKING FOR HELP! Many of us, myself included, have a very difficult time asking for help, but it may be one of the most important forms of Capital that we have. Is there someone who can help you edit that essay to ensure that it makes sense? Maybe someone can help you do your chores or cover a shift for you so you can study for an exam. Maybe you can talk to your teacher and get an extension on that project.

Critically, there are people out there whose job it is to help people get their lives in balance. Talking to Guidance Counselors, spiritual advisors, even psychologists and other therapists can make all the difference in helping you create healthy balances in your life. They can help you come up with strategies to deal with being overwhelmed or to help you make use of your Unrealized Potential. Typically, however, you have to take the first step of reaching out.

Building relationships is central to building Social Capital. That’s not so easy to do for those of us who happen to be on the more introverted side. We introverts need to pace ourselves more, but can still build relationships. The more relationships, positive relationships, we have, the greater our access to Social Capital. We all know that person who, no matter what we need, they always “knowaguy”. That’s Social Capital. The more connections we have, the greater our ability to seek help in balancing our Personal Capital with our Personal Goals.

Optimally, what we are looking for is a scale that looks more like this…

This is a healthy balance.

We want to create a life in which we are using our Personal Capital by striving for Personal Goals. Our goals should be realistic for the moment so as not to be overwhelmed. Concepts like “setting realistic goals” or developing our resiliency are a bit squishy. Sometimes we really don’t know what’s realistic until we challenge ourselves. And what the heck is resiliency?

It’s important to note that this scale is pretty sensitive. Contingencies happen the knock the balance off on occasion. This is not always a bad thing. Sometimes this offers us an opportunity to get a breather before we re-evaluate our goals and add challenges to our lives. Sometimes this helps us realize that we are capable of accomplishing so much more than we ever thought. In the long run, however, it important to work actively to maintain a balance between our goals and our capacity to achieve those goals. A more balanced life will be healthier and less stressful. You can create a more balanced life. This may involve making hard decisions about who you are and about the goals you face, but making hard decisions is what cultivates growth.


  1. When it comes to building cultural capital, the computer phrase GIGO is a useful analogue. In other words, if the experiences you have are low quality, Garbage In, the quality of your cultural capital will be low, Garbage Out. To build cultural capital, you need quality experiences. This is especially true when using media to gain cultural experience. Not all books, magazines, YouTube videos or TV shows are created equal. Look for quality, not quantity.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with occasional frivolous spending, but you have to prioritize, especially if Economic Capital is something that you do not have in abundance.
  3. Before smartphones I had a pad that I carried with me everywhere with a printed calendar spanning two months. If it wasn’t in the pad, it wasn’t a thing.

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