I work a lot with stress management and resilience training and get used to seeing the signs and symptoms of stress. These can be acute such as increased heart rate or more long-term like weight gained through comfort eating. I will focus on the chronic symptoms here as these are the less readily recognised. It is essential for leaders and managers to be able to spot stress-related burnouts approaching to look after themselves and their teams.
Stress symptoms to look out for to avoid burnout
Physiological Chronic Stress Symptoms
Stress is a bodily phonomena and causes biochemical changes internally and physical symptoms externally. General ill health caused by a weakened immune system is a common stress symptom. Different people have different “organs of weakness” and when stressed get such things as cold sores, diarrhoea, muscular aches, coughs and colds, and skin rashes for example. Stress can also be seen in the posture – either collapsed or chronically tense and contracted.
Behavioural Signs of Stress
- Disturbance to sleep (not sleeping or sleeping ots can both be signs of stress)
- Changes in diet (e.g. comfort eating or reduced appetite)
- Excessive use of alcohol, drugs (including caffeine and nicotine) and other addictive coping strategies (even exercise)
- Aggressive behaviour or socially withdrawn behaviour (it’s the change to look-out for
- Nervous habits (pacing nail biting, compulsive e-nail checking even!)
Psychological Stress Symptoms
- Reduced concentration (may show up behaviourally as increased “error rate” at work)
- Emotional distress
- Memory problems
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Agitation and an inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Reduced energy or energy fluctuations
Organisational Symptoms of Stress
Note that whole organisations can have cultures of stress and show any of the above symptoms en masse. Excessive drinking may be normalised in a company for example.
Stress Response Overview
Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:
- Foot on the gas – Fight/Hyper-arousal. An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
- Foot on the brake – Flight/ Hyp0-arousal. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
- Foot on both – Freeze/A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.
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