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  • Stress

Stress – Signs, Symptoms and Management

Stress – Signs, Symptoms and Management

  • 16 November 2021
  • 3 years


Hi everyone, I’m James and I’m a clinical team lead and therapist with experience across the private, public, and voluntary sectors. I have worked with numerous difficulties that people face across all walks of life – including anxiety, depression, relationship issues, stress, and self-harm to name a few. I also have experience with risk management and crisis intervention. 

I wanted to start out by discussing the differences between stress and burnout because it’s important to understand how the two differ. Understanding the warning signs or triggers comes from being able to firstly separate out one problem from another – where we can. 

The main concept with burnout is that this describes overwhelm in relation to occupational phenomenon. The key point here is overwhelm, which indicates that stress has become too much of a burden to bear, and our usual coping strategies and structures begin to break down.

Stress leading to a chronic or acute sense of fatigue can forge a path toward this – but the important thing to note is that stress is usually a precursor to burnout. It’s not uncommon for people experiencing burnout, anxiety, and even depression to allude to an overarching and disempowering sense of being stressed and this is – quite simply – because stress is the pervading and unwanted feature. Therefore, surely, prevention is better than the cure, and in this sense maybe it’s time to talk stress, the how, what, and why of stress, and a view to going forward in dealing with stress should it ever arise. 

Stress can be caused by a plethora of life’s problems, moves, and changes – positive or negative: job concerns, financial difficulties, illnesses, worries and uncertainties, births, deaths, moving home, or even traveling to see family members. People affected by work-related stress lose an average of 24 days of work due to ill health (remember, this manifests before burnout). Whether or not the causal phenomena are positive or negative life events, the undercurrent is usually pressure. As pressure begins to add up, it swirls around under the surface and creates a whirlpool which takes us in, engulfing and overpowering. If pressure is the undercurrent, stress is the whirlpool itself – and the point where we become overpowered by the whirlpool is where overwhelm takes hold. 

Stress isn’t easily defined – it’s not as though we wake up one day and we’re able to identify stress as a singular phenomenon, although that would be most helpful if we could. Instead, what usually happens is that we might be able to arrive at a conclusion of feeling stressed by listening to other emotional signs that can occur. These can include (but are not limited to): feeling afraid, or irritable (more than usual), a sense of being frustrated, or slightly more worried or on edge than previously. Aside from these more animated or active feelings, a sense of lethargy, sadness, and depression and ensue. The push and pull between highly charged feelings and dips in mood can be a rock and a hard place – not to mention physically and mentally exhausting. So, it’s clear then that feeling stressed can wax and wane, and generally as pressure remains current, stress levels increase. 

The emotional signs though are not the only signs that something’s up. Stress can be a physical, and as well as the emotional indicators of stress being present, it’s common to see some physical indicators emerge during both short-and-long-term stress. When we’re stressed, stress hormones in the body such as cortisol and adrenaline contribute to increased blood pressure, a quickened heart rate, and perhaps a shortness of breath to name a few. Longer-term exposure to these hormones – and too stressful events – can lead to experiencing headaches, dizziness, digestive problems, tension in the body (particularly the neck, back & shoulders), and overall exhaustion. 

It’s clear that stress can bring with it both emotional and physical symptoms. A key question though is whether or not stress is inherently all bad. Imagine a graph, and on the graph, you see a bell curve. We have 3 notable points on the graph – at the begging, in the middle (top of the graph), and at the end. This is the premise of the Yerkes-Dodson model of the relationship between stress and performance. At point 1, the beginning, we can note stress levels beginning to rise, with the top of the bell curve representing peak performance. Finally, the last point on the bell curve represents overexertion, overexposure, and essentially overwhelm. Ultimately the premise is that stress gets things done and is actually an in-built system that warns and alerts as to external threats and prompts an equivalent action to those threats. 

Stress responses are a natural tool in the human experience of adjusting and adapting to new information and situations. For example, during a family member’s illness, stress may keep you more alert and able to cope with the increased demands from balancing work, family, and other areas of your life during a period of adversity. Where things go awry, however, is when stress becomes problematic, counterproductive, and overwhelming. 

Stressful events are a given for humans and for other animals too. We can exact control over some life situations more or less than others, but a good place to start is with thinking about what our limitations might be. Understanding the components of stress encourages us to pay attention to what might be going on, and tuning into physical and emotional changes during a stressful period in life is key. Some practical tips on managing stress include:

Implementing a healthy dietary routine, along with exercise and sleep – a healthy mind and body.

Building a strong support network and using it in times of adversity – maybe I can share the load?

Accepting those situations which we cannot control – I give myself permission to let this go.

Set goals for the coming days, weeks, or longer if possible – I am looking beyond this current situation.

Reframing ‘stress’ – maybe my mind or body is trying to tell me something?

Encouraging self-compassion through self-care & self-dialogue – it’s ok to not be stressed all the time.

Reframing stress through self-compassion can be hugely important in managing stress levels. If we understand what stress is, how it works, and why it occurs, we can be forewarned against the impacts stress will have. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help us to turn our focus inward – “I’m feeling tense – why?” – and questioning ourselves in this way enables us to become our own stress detective. If the body is reacting a certain way, or if we’re feeling a certain way – is this something to work against and suppress, or is this valuable information that we can use? Is there a way we can listen to what body and mind are saying in order to calibrate?

As we become strained under the growing amount of pressure that life events bring, we find more creative ways to deal with the exertion. Sometimes, these coping strategies can include smoking, alcohol and drug use, or self-harm. If you find you are coping using any of these methods, a good step in the right direction is to talk to a medical or mental health professional. 

Learning to manage our stress invites and invokes a richer quality of life – mentally and physically. Learning to become aware of how things are for us increases our knowledge and understanding – and these are powerful tools in being able to handle stress in the longer term. Becoming our own stress detective, in the here-and-now, costs very little – but the long-term benefits are exponential. 

Thank you for listening!

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit 

This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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