15 Small Signs Of Stress You Might Be Missing

When we’re busy at work, whether we’re stuck in back-to-back meetings or tasks, or heads down on an upcoming project, it can be difficult to see the beginning signs of stress showing up. But if we ignore those initial warning signs and continue to power through, they can escalate over time and lead to exhaustion and burnout. So during those busier times, it’s important that we take a moment to pause and address our stress head-on before we feel even worse. 

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the small ways stress shows up in their lives, and what they do when they notice it. Which of these signs have you experienced?

You’re lacking energy

“When I’m feeling stressed, it typically shows up in the form of a general heaviness that saps me of energy, like being covered by a heavy, wet rag. And when I notice that feeling, my first instinct is always to lean into my meditation practice as a way of grounding and centering myself. Because it’s within those few minutes of quietude that I can pause and give myself the space to reconcile with whatever is on my mind. Then, in the stillness, I’m able to fortify myself with breath and renewed clarity.”

—Lisa Sugarman, parenting author, and columnist, Boston, MA

Your shoulders feel tight

“My shoulders start to knot like rope pulled tight. It feels uncomfortable and it can impact my overall well-being because I know my body is telling me to take a time out. If I don’t take a break, I know it is a missed opportunity to take care of myself and the stress increases if I ignore the cues.”

—Kristin Meekhof, author and consultant, Royal Oak, MI

You’re not sleeping well

“My energy level drops when I’m stressed and my quality of sleep soon follows. These are my key indicators I’m operating on reserves and I need to get some much-needed rest.”

—Joshua Miller, master certified executive coach, Austin, TX

You’re fixating on small details

“I notice stress accumulating in my body and mind when I fall into long periods of single-focused work. This sneaky beast of intense focus on one aspect of a project worms its way into an obsessive and perfectionistic pattern. It makes the task at hand less joyful and becomes the thing I stew over for days. When I notice this behavior, I set my timer for 21 minutes and start seven-minute joy-making intervals. Taking time for creativity and joy-making intervals allows me to step away from whatever is pulling my attention in unhealthy ways, hit the reset button, and more mindfully discern what next step to take next.”

—Jenn Baljko, mindful writing , creativity and reinvention mentor, Barcelona, Catalonia

You don’t feel like yourself

“After the unexpected loss of my 73 year old father last year, I started to notice many physical, mental and emotional signs of stress. My thoughts were unorganized, my mood was unstable, my appetite diminished, and my usual motivation to exercise was hidden. I decided to try meditation and self-reflection using a popular app.  Mindfulness has become my positive psychology for engagement, optimism, resiliency, vitality, self determination and positive relationships. Nothing will ever take away the hole in my heart but reflecting on his impact has moved me slowly through the grieving stages.”

—Michelle Schrouder, wellness director, Penfield, NY

You’re dizzy

“I get symptoms of vertigo and feel off-balance when I’m stressed. To compensate, I must get away from all people and get out in nature or in a quiet room and breathe three times in through my nose and out though my mouth. It is like a mindful moment of meditative breathing and necessary to prevent burnout.”

—M.J., licensed mental health counselor, Tampa, FL 

You notice yourself twitching

“When I’m stressed, I start blinking excessively or twitching my fingers, especially when typing or using the mouse. Not only are these behaviors creating physical stress in my body, but I also become very self-conscious about them. They are possible to control during on-camera meetings, but usually come out tenfold immediately afterward. I keep a note at my desk listing several actions that provide immediate relief: Sitali (cooling) breath, tapping, or somatic experiencing.”

—Christy Hughes, sales professional, Hamilton, TX

Your body feels tense and achy

“When I feel stressed, the tension starts in my shoulders, and then my eyelid starts twitching. That’s usually a sign that a migraine is coming on, and sadly, that isn’t a get-out-of-work-free pass. I try to find a moment to do some box breathing and drink more water when I feel one coming on and when it’s actually here. My next sign, and what should be the final sign, is that I can’t move in the morning. My limbs are so heavy with the psychological exhaustion that I can’t get out of bed, and I end up having to call in sick. My body is continuously finding new ways to demand that I take care of it. I’m still learning to listen. Rest is the best answer I have to my mini burnouts.”

—Erin A., staff writer, Charlotte, NC

You’re getting more offended

“When I’m stressed, I’m more likely to take things personally. I become hypersensitive and lean toward righteousness. Often, this happens when I am under the weather. Everything is already a little bit harder since some of my attention is on feeling sick. It’s hard to say if I get sick because I am stressed or if getting sick makes me feel more stressed. But, the upshot is that instead of listening carefully, I become defensive and take things personally.  My husband might ask me a question like ‘Where did you put my xyz?’ Instead of pausing to think about it, my initial internal response is ‘Why do you assume I did something with it?’ It takes an honest moment of self-reflection to back off and notice it’s my stress.”

—Marijke McCandless, writer, workshop leader, Las Vegas, NV

You’re craving sugar

“I get stressed every now and then, and it is an entire energy shift. I am hungry for all things sweet, wish I could snuggle into a blanket fort and live there forever, and I become less confident in my abilities to communicate with others. But the important thing is that I always know it will pass, and I do my best to keep myself hydrated, well-rested, and nourished.”

—Natalie Constable, brand strategist, Tulsa, OK

You’re in a creative rut

“I always get blocked creatively when stress is building up. It starts with small things such as brain freeze when writing or when I’m podcasting. As soon as I notice the little things that add up, I stop and do some visualization exercises that I still use today.”

—Mark-John Clifford, former investment banker, Fresno, CA

You’re not taking full breaths

“When I’m under stress, I tend to breathe shallower and sometimes even find myself holding my breath. My typical stress response is one I feel immediately in my body and is my cue to reset by taking some slow deep breaths in and out.”

—Emily Madill, certified professional Coach (ACC) and author, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada

Your mind is racing

“When I get stressed, I notice that my mind usually races at night and I have a hard time falling asleep (which of course, causes even more stress the next day.) My go-to solutions are making a solid to-do list before bed, writing in my gratitude journal, and finally listening to sleep meditations.”

—Henna Garrison, mindset coach, Sicily, Italy

You’re getting headaches

“As a mom to two young toddlers, stress is unfortunately a common issue I struggle with. Oftentimes I will immediately feel my body tense up and get tight, especially around my face and neck.  If I’m not too conscious, it can quickly escalate to a headache.”

—Karissa Whitman, motherhood content creator, San Diego, CA

You feel shaky

“When I am stressed, my body starts to shake or tremble. It is a very noticeable physiological warning signal that my nervous system is under strain. It makes sense given that our bodies and brains interpret stress as a signal to escape from danger, priming our muscles to act.  When my body reacts to this stress my ‘go-to’ is breathing. I breathe in through my nostrils for a count of four and exhale through my mouth for a count of eight. Deepening and prolonging the exhalation helps to relax the body and slow the tremors.”


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