The BBC Stress Test - results

Professor Peter Kinderman

Professor Peter Kinderman from the University of Liverpool describes what he has learned from the BBC Stress Experiment. His results reveal a positive message about how we may be able to improve our mental health.

Many different factors can affect your mental health

Back in June 2011, with assistance from All in the Mind and BBC Lab UK, we asked the BBC audience to help us carry out a groundbreaking experiment into the causes of stress. Over thirty thousand of you took part, which makes this one of the largest studies of mental health ever.

The results so far...

First of all, we confirmed that nearly all the variables that we predicted would influence mental health and wellbeing did indeed play a role.

Secondly, the biggest predictor of mental health problems was ‘rumination’, which means the tendency to dwell on negative events for too long.

Before we began, we knew that many things can affect our mental health. These include:

  • Biological factors, such as the genes you inherit from your parents
  • Social factors, such as how often you see your family and friends
  • Life-events, particularly traumatic events such as bereavements
  • Psychological factors, such as the way you think about things that have happened to you

The BBC Stress Test was designed to explore how important these different factors are compared with each other. We also wanted to understand how they interact with each other to affect our mental health. While we still have to do a lot of work to analyse the data, the preliminary results are exciting.

What we discovered about the factors that cause stress

Stressed man with hand to his forehead

Ruminating - or dwelling too long on negative events - was the biggest predictor of mental health problems

The data you submitted in the stress experiment suggests that:

  • The events that we experience in our lives – both events in childhood, and events over the past few months – significantly affect our wellbeing;
  • The level of social support we receive from family, friends and the wider community is also very important;
  • A family history of mental health problems seems to be less significant, as is your financial circumstance;
  • However, what emerges very clearly is that a tendency to blame yourself for problems and, most importantly, a tendency to ruminate and worry are the most important factors when it comes to predicting your chances of suffering from stress.

None of these factors means for certain that you will feel stress. But we can identify the risk factors with much more confidence.

The way that we react to things that happen to us is something we can change

A positive message

When we look at how these factors relate to each other, we notice something interesting. It appears that the things that happen to us in our lives affect our mental health because we blame ourselves and dwell on our problems. The same is true when we look at those with a family history of mental health problems. A family history of problems is associated with a tendency to dwell on negative events - which in turn leads to more problems - rather than being related to mental health issues directly.

This is an important finding, because the way that we react to bad circumstances is something we can change – if necessary through therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Everything affects everything else…

One woman comforting another

A network of friends and family can help protect against low wellbeing

Because all these different elements are linked to wellbeing - and with each other – complex statistical analyses are needed. But the initial analysis suggests that the most likely path to reduced wellbeing or greater mental health problems is a lack of social support. Social problems seem to leave people vulnerable to more stressful life events, which in turn leads to increased self-blame and dwelling on these problems and both of these behaviours adversely affects your mental health.

A tendency to dwell on negative events or problems seems to be associated with a family history of mental health problems. However, social support is important and might act as a protective factor. This is especially true when we look at the measure called ‘wellbeing’.

Find out more about wellbeing, and how data from the Stress Test has helped us create a new way of measuring it.

What did we measure?

Wellbeing measures your ability to develop your potential

Psychologists don't tend to think of stress in the same way as other people do. Instead of measuring one factor called stress, we measured two mental health scales; depression and anxiety. As we expected, there was a very close relationship between these two measures.

Our next analysis will examine whether different contributing factors affect mental health and wellbeing.

Who took part?

A total of 32,842 people (12,677 men and 20,165 women) from 172 countries participated in the study. They had an average age of 39, and more than 90% of them described themselves as ‘white’. Most were working full-time, and most were in stable relationships.

This very large sample means that we will able to conduct complex statistical analyses to look at the relationship between all the variables. But it does have the disadvantage that it will take some time to go through all the information in as much detail as we need to.

The sample as a whole appeared quite stressed; with about half the group reporting scores for anxiety and depression that would raise concerns (although we should bear in mind that about one person in four will experience mental health problems at some point in their lifetime).

Find out how we get meaningful results when our sample of participants is different from the general public?

The data from the BBC Stress Test was analysed by Professor Peter Kinderman and Eleanor Pontin from the University of Liverpool, Dr Sara Tai from the University of Manchester and Dr Matthias Schwannauer from the University of Edinburgh.

All in the Mind

Claudia Hammond presents the programme exploring the limits and potential of the human mind.

Also on BBC Lab UK

If you're worried...

If you are worried about your mental health, there are plenty of places where you can go for help and support.

  • BBC mental health site

    A good starting point for anyone who wants to know more about mental health


    Samaritans provide provides confidential non-judgmental emotional support. Lines are open 24 hours a day

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.