The Heirarchy of Stress

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

We don’t often think of placing our stress level on a continuum, but looking at our stress through the lens of our needs can be helpful. Stress and needs often go hand in hand. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can begin to map out where our stress levels are on a continuum from less severe to more severe. This also allows us to determine where our stress is coming from. Knowing where our stress comes from helps us to build a plan to address it more effectively.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed the hierarchy. This was a theory he developed concerning how people are motivated. It is said he preferred to focus on the positive in people rather than just seeing symptoms. He completed his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin and went on to complete more research at Columbia University.

As you go through your life you may be surprised that stress can accumulate from a variety of areas. Using Maslow’s hierarchy you can develop a map of your stress. By looking at where your needs are not being met you will also find where stresses arise. This will help you to develop action plans that better address those areas and in turn help to decrease your stress.

The Hierarchy

The model is arranged in the shape of a triangle as shown above. Each portion of the triangle builds one upon the other and ends in a peak. Maslow broke down the human condition into five areas. Our Physiological, Safety, Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs.


What the body needs for survival comprises the physiological level of the hierarchy. We all need enough air, water, food, sleep, clothes, shelter, and general health. If any of these areas are compromised in your life your stress levels will rise. Addressing the physiological needs is a good place to begin. Looking at the following areas is helpful. By baseline general health I simply mean are you overall healthy. If you have chronic ailments such as diabetes or heart disease are these in good control? Some of these things will be in your direct control while some may not be–such as quality air. Looking at what you can control can be helpful in reducing your stress levels.

  • Enough quality air
  • Plenty of water
  • Healthy diet
  • Quality sleep
  • Enough clothing for the season
  • Reliable shelter
  • Baseline general health


Next is safety. Looking at your level of personal, emotional, and financial safety and security are key to helping your stress levels. If you are not feeling safe it’s more likely that you will be feeling very stressed. Do what you can to address each of the areas of safety. Health gets a boost in this level as well to health and “well being.” Again in some of these areas you may not have direct or immediate control, but you will likely be able to formulate a plan to address each of these areas over time.

Social Belonging

Humans for the most part are social beings. Having a level of social belonging can be a key part of keeping stresses low. Family, friendships, and intimacy are important parts of life. Finding a social group can be difficult, but there are a lot of tools in the modern era that can help. Search engines such as can help you to find a group of like minded people. Being a part of a social group helps us to feel “part of” rather than isolated. This can go a long way to decreasing stress.


Self esteem is the next level in the hierarchy. Beyond feeling good about yourself feeling competent in your work, confident in your friendships and family life, and having a level of expertise somewhere in your life all have a positive effect on reducing stress levels. Many times the more expert we are the more autonomy we have over our lives which can also be stress relieving.


The peak of the hierarchy is self-actualization. Self actualization is living a life that allows you to realize your full potential. Developing a skill or talent in life, parenting, finding a compatible mate. Self actualization is the cherry on top. It allows you to navigate your life as you desire for the most part. And to be sure it requires you to have all the previous levels of the hierarchy locked in.


What is the hierarchy of your personal stress? Take a few moments to look at how your needs and stress stack up. Start looking at what you can do to address your levels of stress in each of the areas. Take a few moments to review some of my earlier blog posts on eating, sleeping, exercise, and finances which may help you to better manage your stress levels. Remember stress is inevitable, but there is something you can do to address what stresses you. It just may be easier than you realize.

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