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Stress Series: Sending out stress signals

Posted by Deb Muoio

Dec 8, 2015 1:53:02 PM


Few jobs are without stress, unless you make balloon animals at kid’s parties. Even then, try telling a 3-year-old that you can’t make Superman out of balloons without causing a tantrum.

So if we can’t entirely avoid stress at work – the looming deadlines, the crabby customers, the hectic days – the best we can do is learn how to deal with stress by practicing healthy coping techniques, like deep breathing, meditation, and by taking proactive steps to reduce the stressor.

This approach works well most of the time, but even the most effective coping techniques may be no match for that chronic, in-your-face stress that keeps coming at you. Like a professional boxer, it’s blow after blow of non-stop stress, and it only stops when you’re down and out. This type of stress, the kind that leads to burnout, often occurs among firefighters, soldiers, pilots, and police officers, just to name a few (, 2015). However, in today’s fast-paced, competitive work environment, with frequent budget cuts and restructuring, chronic stress is commonplace in most occupations, most positions and even most organizations.

While a certain level of stress can be energizing, chronic stress almost always leads to lower productivity, absenteeism, poor health and a plethora of other issues. That’s why it is important to recognize the signs, in self and in others, and take steps to remedy the situation before it is too late.


So what are the signs of stress?

They can be divided into three categories: Physiological, Emotional and Cognitive.

Physiological Signs of Stress

Neuro-muscular tension:
  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling
  • Nervous ticks
  • Teeth grinding

Aches and pains:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Neck or back pain
  • Stomach aches

Breathing problems:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking feeling
  • Tendency to hold your breath

Digestive issues:

  • Spontaneous weight gain or weight loss
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Sleep problems:

  • Insomnia
  • Hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Nightmares
  • Constant tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Lack of energy
  • Restless leg syndrome

Cardiovascular issues:

  • Light-headedness, fainting
  • Palpitations, racing heart
  • Chest pain

Negative immune responses:

  • Rashes, hives, eczema
  • Frequent colds, colds sores, or other infections
  • Frequent allergy attacks

Sensory disturbances:

  • Tinnitus (ears ringing)
  • Blurred vision
  • Impaired hearing
  • Dizziness, balance problems


Emotional Signs of Stress

The feeling of being on a constant emotional rollercoaster:

  • Uncharacteristic emotional outbursts
  • Mood swings
  • Overreacting to minor triggers
  • Increased anger, frustration and fear
  • Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope

The feeling of impending doom:

  • Excessive anxiety, worry, nervousness
  • A sudden onslaught of panic attacks

The feeling of overwhelming sadness:

  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Crying spells
  • Suicidal thoughts

The feeling that you’re just not good enough:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Self-doubt
  • Ruminating and over-thinking problems
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Feelings of worthlessness


Cognitive Signs of Stress

Difficulty concentrating:

  • Being unable to focus on the task at hand
  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Absent-mindedness
  • Racing or scattered thoughts
  • Being unable to shut your thoughts off at night
Reasoning problems:
  • Trouble learning or processing new information
  • Poor judgment
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Focusing too much on the negatives



It’s fairly easy to notice these symptoms when you’re experiencing them, but how can you tell if an employee is under too much stress? Here’s how the physiological, emotional, and cognitive symptoms of stress translate into behaviors:

Their demeanor changes:

  • They become angry or agitated more easily
  • They’re restless and can’t sit still or relax
  • They show little interest in their appearance
  • They develop nervous habits, like twitching, fidgeting, or biting their nails
  • They look tired or are low on energy

Their performance changes:

  • They’re coming in late or calling in sick more often
  • They’re procrastinating or avoiding tasks
  • They’re “scatterbrained” and forgetting important deadlines, appointments, or tasks
  • They’re less productive
  • They’re less motivated and driven, and seem to be just going through the motions
  • They become less engaged, and stop caring about their work
  • They make up excuses as to why their work is not up to par
  • They are making more mistakes or, in the case of manual labor, having accidents

They are acting out of character and treating people differently:

  • They’re more judgmental, critical, and tactless
  • They have little patience with others and get into arguments more often
  • They overreact to minor annoyances that normally wouldn’t bother them
  • They withdraw from other people
  • They complain more



After a while, intense, chronic stress can lead to burnout. There is only so much the body can take; like a car that’s constantly running at full speed, a body that is overwhelmed with constant stress hormones will eventually tire and give out. Even if the person has no intention of taking a rest or giving up, their body will.

So when does stress become burnout?

  • When you feel physically drained and emotionally numb at the end of the day.
  • When you feel like you don’t have the energy to get up in the morning, let alone go through a full day’s work.
  • When you feel there is too much weight on your shoulders and you can’t handle it anymore.
  • When you just don’t care about your clients or the quality of your work anymore, and are no longer motivated to put an effort into tasks.
  • When your job no longer offers a sense of fulfillment and you feel like your efforts don’t make a difference.


Mazziotta, J. (2015, January 9). The Most (and Least) Stressful Jobs In America. Health. Retrieved from

If you’re interested in using BSS - NSF - R2 (Burnout Symptom Screener - For Non-Service Fields - 2nd Revision), BSS - SF - R2 (Burnout Symptom Screener - For Service Fields - 2nd Revision) or other assessments, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

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Topics: Wellbeing at Work, Employee Engagement, Mentoring, Employee Development, Workplace Bullying, stress, Employee Assistance Programs, Coaching, Employee Relations

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