Measuring Community Stress

Boy and woman look out the window of a school.

How does accumulated stress, or allostatic load, affect a community’s ability to respond to shocks or crises?

The Issue

Public health practitioners have long understood the impact of allostatic load—accumulated stress at the individual level. When a person experiences long-term or repeated stress, the body can remain in a heightened state to the point where an individual’s health can begin to decline.

In the public health sector, this concept has been the focus of a growing body of research on how chronic stress and trauma—such as witnessing violence or experiencing discrimination or abuse—affect individual health across the lifespan.

Building on key findings in this area, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) engaged RAND to investigate a slightly different question: whether a community that experiences challenges—for instance, high unemployment, community violence, segregation, or high opioid use—could develop community allostatic load, which, in turn, could affect how it responds to future traumatic events.

The research team developed a framework for community allostatic load, and explored whether it could explain why two similar communities might respond to the same traumatic event in different ways.

Key Findings

  • Chronic stress related to issues such as inequality can complicate an individual’s ability to respond to acute shocks, and influence how a community responds collectively.

  • Communities can be strengthened by taking steps to alleviate stress factors, such as developing a coordinated response plan for stress-inducing events and effective communication and public education campaigns.

  • Community leaders can use measures to describe the current stress level in a community and sense challenges before a triggering event occurs.

In creating this framework, the ultimate goal of this research is to provide public health practitioners and other leaders with new ways of thinking about community stressors—which in turn may lead to new approaches for decreasing stress and promoting community health and well-being.

This publication provides a summary of the full report Toward an Initial Conceptual Framework to Assess Community Allostatic Load: Early Themes from Literature Review and Community Analyses on the Role of Cumulative Community Stress (by Anita Chandra, Meagan Cahill, Douglas Yeung, Rachel Ross, RAND Corporation, 2018). The report includes a tool to help community leaders identify data that can be used to measure stress levels in a community. It also lists practical interventions that a community can enact to mitigate stress before a triggering event takes place.

Support for this research was provided by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

About RAND

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. RAND is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and committed to the public interest.