Identifying stress is difficult when we’re living it. Identifying it in other people is simpler, but often we, as human beings, are poor communicators when it comes to honest conversations about our mental health. And we’re even worse at acknowledging that we need to listen, learn and act.

But first, let’s take a look at one myth. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without it, we simply wouldn’t exist. Back when we were hunters or prey, stress allowed us to avoid being a meal to some prehistoric animal. The release of hormones to enable the fight or flight response. And today that same stress allows us to react in an emergency. Like jumping out of the way of a speeding car.

Identifying stress in these circumstances is simple, and necessary for our survival. Stress becomes problematic is when it builds up to the point of becoming overwhelming, and an individual can no longer tolerate stress. It becomes toxic, and things start to change, both physiologically and psychologically.

Toxic stress overloads the body and can result in some serious health issues including:

  • Stroke: stress can cause a rise in blood pressure, which is the main cause of haemorrhagic stroke. High blood pressure causes weaknesses in the veins in the brain, which can split or rupture as a result.
  • Cardiovascular disease: the heart is the first organ to experience stress, and cardiovascular disease is the number one killer today. 

Mental or Emotional Breakdown


There are numerous signs to look for that show that overwhelm due to stress is near including:

  • Physical changes including looking exhausted or aged
  • Poor judgement
  • Increased irritability and short-tempered 
  • Mood swings or negative mood
  • Poor memory 
  • More argumentative 
  • Headaches, nausea and aches and pains
  • Poor sleep and tiredness
  • Drink or drug problems

Are we all affected by stress?

In short, yes. But people are affected by stress in different ways, and identifying stress in individuals can be challenging. People experience stress in different ways, so their response to it manifests in different ways too. We all live busy lives these days, so it simply isn’t possible to remove the causes of stress, but it is possible to reduce the risks associated with it.

Someone under significant stress will show changes in their behaviour. This could be emotional, physical or behavioural, so it’s important to recognise any negative changes. An individual could suffer changes in all three of these areas, or one or two. We already understand that stress affects individuals in different ways, so remembering this lesson is important.

Remember that these negative changes are also likely to affect areas of someone’s personal or professional life too- like productivity at work.


identifying StressHere’s a brief exercise

  • Thinking on the signs of stress that we have described already, spend a few moments considering your own behaviours and wellbeing and see if you can identify any of them in yourself. Remember that we all have bad days, but think back over the last two weeks. 

If you haven’t identified anything from the list that’s great! 

  • If you have, think back over the last two weeks and consider what may have caused you the stress. Was it a short term stressor, or something longer term?
  • Next, thinking back over the last two weeks, how did you manage that stress and what tools did you use? 

This can be an interesting exercise and give you a glimpse into your own world. Being mindful of your own behaviours is the beginning of a journey to understanding yourself. More here about our support

Identifying Stress: 4 ways it affects us all

In this section, we’ll look in more detail at how we can identify stress. The four key areas that are affected by stress are:

  • Emotional Response

  • Physical Response

  • Behavioural Change

  • Cognitive Ability

As we’ve already discovered, individuals respond to stress in different ways, so you may only recognise one or two of the symptoms that we’re about to look at, or you may recognise quite a few. It is also important to bear in mind that some of these symptoms could be caused by health conditions, so when examining stress it’s important to consult your GP to rule out other possible causes.

Identifying Stress: what to look out for

Emotional Response 

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Cynicism
  • Feeling of overwhelm
  • Frustration
  • Mood changes
  • Feelings of doom
  • Irritability and short temper

Physical Response

  • High Blood Pressure

  • Frequent coughs and colds 
  • Skin complaints
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Indigestion and heartburn

Behavioural Change

  • Self Isolation
  • Too little or too much sleep
  • Loss of motivation
  • Overuse of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco or drugs to relax
  • No sense of humour

Cognitive Ability

  • Self-doubt
  • Memory problems
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of achievement despite starting tasks 
  • Poor judgement
  • Brain fog
  • Loss of decision-making ability

This is by no means a definitive list but gives some good ideas of what to look for in yourself and others. But looking for negative changes in a person is the critical point to identifying stress.

What next?

Take a look at our free resource that shows you some of the tools that you can utilise to manage stress before it reaches toxic levels