There is no single symptom that can identify stress – stressed and unstressed people may equally well have heart disease or drink to excess. A common factor in stressed individuals is the presence of a number of symptoms.

Physical signs

Some physical symptoms of stress can be life-threatening, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Less life-threatening physical signs include insomnia, a feeling of constant fatigue, headaches, skin rashes, digestive disorders, ulcers, colitis, loss of appetite, overeating, and cramps. Many of these occur at some point after a stressful event. Other symptoms of stress are more immediate – for example, feelings of nausea, breathlessness, or a dry mouth. All these symptoms, of course, may be caused by factors other than stress. If you or a colleague are naturally prone to headaches, for example, be wary of jumping to inaccurate conclusions about stress levels.

Recognizing stress at work

It is often quite easy to spot signs of stress in the people you work with. Some of the more common symptoms include a marked decline in personal appearance, a quick and fiery temper, changes in eating habits, and a general withdrawal from social activities.

Emotional signs

The emotional symptoms of stress can include general irritability, acute anxiety attacks, depression, lack of libido, the loss of a sense of humour, and an inability to concentrate on the simplest of routine tasks. Understanding unusual emotional responses and related changes in behaviour is the key to recognizing stress in yourself and others. Some of the most common indications of stress are:

  • Becoming unnecessarily over-emotional or aggressive in conflict situations;

  • Loss of interest in personal appearance, other people, social events, or previously enjoyed activities, such as a favourite sport;

  • Poor concentration, difficulty in remembering, and an inability to make decisions;

  • Sadness, guilt, fatigue, apathy, and a pronounced feeling of helplessness or failure;

  • Loss of confidence in personal ability, often coupled with a lack of self-worth.

Behavioural symptoms

As a temporary relief from stress, many people indulge to excess in eating, smoking, drinking, or spending. Stress can turn an occasional smoker into a chain-smoker, and the social drinker into an alcoholic. Individuals may not recognize they are over-indulging; those who do may go to some lengths to keep their self-destructive behaviour from friends, family, and colleagues.

Abusing stimulants

Sugar, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can all help overcome fatigue, anxiety, and tension rapidly – but all too briefly. Used to excess, they heighten the symptoms caused by stress.

Points to remember

  • Family, friends, and colleagues often spot signs of stress before the individual affected.

  • Hobbies and interests are healthy mood-enhancers; their absence, especially if sudden, may worsen underlying stress.

  • Almost everyone has a certain weakness that comes to the fore when they are stressed. For example, many start smoking even though they had given up.


If you suffer from regular headaches or insomnia, see a doctor.


Make a note of anything that you can find that helps you to relax.


Listen to what your body tells you as objectively as you can.

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