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How the Scaling Question Can Help You Reduce Stress by 20%

This question leverages empowerment, intuition, and motivation to reduce stress.

Stress is linked with a higher mortality rate, depression, brain function, genes that control mood and behavior, and anxiety/panic. It’s also been linked with anger, fatigue, headache, muscular tension, and upset stomach. Research suggests that “stress is up” and some have called it a “public health crisis.” Top sources of stress include: money, work, the economy, and family responsibilities.

While some stress is caused by environmental factors, such as poverty, work environment, or health issues, other stress can be minimized based on thoughtful intervention. One component of solution focused brief therapy (SFBT) – the scaling question – can help you pinpoint the ways you – not your neighbor, friend, coworker, or mother – can best reduce stress. Scaling questions invite you to get very specific and clear about what would be happening if various aspects of your life changed by a certain percentage or ranking. This technique also builds on empowerment which posits that people know what’s best for them and have an intuitive sense about how they can heal or grow.

You may ask:

“On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least stressed and 10 being the most stressed, where are you at right now?"

Follow-up questions quickly and easily pinpoint the areas that most need to change.

They include:

"What would be happening if you were 2 points less stressed?

  • "What exactly would you be doing that you didn't do before?"
  • "What would other people (your co-workers, children, partner, or friends) notice was different about you?"
  • "Who would be the most surprised by your new behavior/state? How would they react?"
  • "What are some of the things you would be saying/commenting?"
  • "What would be the most obvious difference that would be noticeable right away?"
  • "Is there any benefit to keeping things the way they are now – more stressful?"
  • "What would the long-term changes be, like if you kept this up for a few months?"
  • "Is this something you can change? If not, are there any other ways you could get to 2 points less stress with something you could change?"

One person might answer, “Exercising really reduces my stress and anxiety. I’d be going to the gym 4 times a week for an hour.”

Another might say, “I’d have meals ready to go a few times a week when I got home from work instead of scrambling at the last minute all the time.”

“I’d do something about my job, like move to another department or look for a new one. My boss and I don’t get along and it wears on me every day.”

“My partner and I would be able to get away together sometimes instead of bickering about little stuff all the time.”

“I’d leave 20 minutes earlier for work instead of always worrying about being late.”

“I’d actually get stuff done, like cleaning out my closets.”

“I’d get time to myself in the week, like to read or go for a walk. I’d have some time to decompress and be alone.”

Some characteristics of the most useful goals include: 1) personally meaningful, 2) concrete, specific, and behavioral, 3) positively stated (presence of something instead of absence of something), and 4) realistic and achievable.

Since stress is so subjective, there's no wonder intervention to minimize its harmful impact. Visualizing how your life would look if you miraculously had 2 points less stress can focus your efforts. Picturing life as if improvements have already been made offers momentum to “do something different.”

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017), is a counselor for individuals and couples in Chicago's western suburbs Sign up for free updates on tools to strengthen personal and family joy at or follow Dr. Leyba on Facebook or Twitter.