How To Accurately Identify Your Stress Signals


Emotional Warning Lights

Your task today in the 31 Days to a Less Stressful Life Challenge is to identify your stress signals. Stress signals are the equivalent of warning lights on your dashboard. Stress signals are useful to pinpoint because they will alert you to the fact that stress is building up.

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 commons signs and symptoms of stress.  If  you know what to look out for, you can take some action to de-escalate. I've pulled together a complete list of stress signals (from the Institute) which you can see here. Alternatively, you can download the list using the button.

Increase Your Self-Awareness

Managing stress successfully means developing a good understanding of how you function — including what kinds of situations are likely to be stress-inducing. Getting a handle on your personal stress signals can be very empowering.

Obviously knowing what your stress signals are has to be married to listening and watching for them and then doing something in response. I'll talk quite a bit about both of these requirements later in the series. 

Something to be aware of that everyone's stress signals are different and can also vary over time and with the amount of stress that you're feeling.

Let's look at stress signals in a bit more detail.

Stress Signal Categories

Stress signals can be grouped into four main categories:

  1. Feelings: anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, embarrassment.
  2. Thoughts: self-criticism, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure.
  3. Behaviors: crying, increased or decreased appetite, "snapping" at friends, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use (including smoking), nervous laughter, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or other speech difficulties, being more accident-prone.
  4. Physical: sleep disturbances, tight muscles, headaches, fatigue, cold or sweaty hands, back or neck problems, stomach distress, more colds and infections, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth. (Courtesy of The University of Texas).

Your ability to tolerate stress is dependent on a number of factors. I discuss the factors and how to increase your stress resistance in 7 Habits That Increase Stress Resilience. In summary, it's possible to increase your stress resilience by widening your zone of acceptable stress. The 7 habits I refer to in the article are:

  • Curiosity — cultivate a willingness to explore new experiences. 
  • Social networks — building supportive social and other networks.
  • Exercise and nutrition — ensuring you eat and exercise well.
  • Sleep — getting enough restful sleep.
  • Self-awareness — keeping an eye on your stress levels.
  • Mindset — cultivating a positive attitude.
  • Gratitude — recognising your good fortune.

There are however, two problems you can run into when trying to pin down your stress signals.

1. Stress Signals May Be Symptoms Of Other Disorders 

One issue you'll face is that the signals you detect might be caused by another disease processes altogether. One way to evaluate this is to look for patterns — regular occasions when your stress signals appear.

For example, some people find that when they're starting to get stressed it affects their stomach, with cramps, bloating, heartburn and other digestive problems occurring late at night. The coincidence of symptom and time of day cues the thought: could this be stress related?

If symptoms fall into a recognised pattern, they become easier to recognise.

It's important to emphasise however, that if you're in any doubt about whether your symptoms are stress related, you should always check them out with your physician if you are in any way concerned.


2. When Being Stressed Is The New Normal

Another challenge you might have is that if you've been chronically stressed for a long time, you might not recognise the signals as abnormal. Most of us have a capacity to make adjustments and many people come to believe that being chronically stressed along with the symptoms it causes is just a by-product of  modern life.

That's a trap which you don't want to fall into. But what can you do if you have been stressed for a long time? How can you step back and re-assess?

Journaling Is Helpful

I'll talk later in the series about the benefits of developing a journaling practice — jotting down some thoughts about your day. I've found that creating a prompt which reminds me to note any signals that might indicate I'm becoming stressed really helps. 

I usually journal last thing at work before I leave for home. I have a TextExpander snippet which I use to pull up some canned text in the form of questions I can answer. One of my questions is in the form of a checklist. My stress signals most often appear in my jaw (too much clenching) and in my stomach — I tend to get cramps when stress takes hold.

My checklist has a list of these and some other likely signals and all I have to do is notice what's happening in my body and check any boxes which are affected.

If you don't surface the fact that you are suffering from stress and acknowledge that it's having some unwelcome effects on you and on potentially those around you, you're unable to take action to make things better.

Take Action

This is what I suggest you do. Using the Institute’s list make a note of any of the signs or symptoms that you recognise.

If you're not sure which ones to pick, you could run an experiment for a month to find out. Using the spreadsheet, add additional columns to the right for each day of the month and put a mark against any candidate symptoms you discover.

To make things easier you can download a pre-loaded  spreadsheet via the box below. I've also outlined the method I use to remind myself to record my signals here.

Evaluate Your Stress Level

If you didn't do the quiz on Day 1, you can also get some additional information about your current level of stress by completing the questionnaire below. The questionnaire is based on the Perceived Stress Scale and is an evidence-based tool used to self-identify levels of stress by comparison to the general population.

It can be particularly helpful to obtain some further data if you have been living with stress for some time. Learning about how your level of stress compares to the rest of the population might be the incentive you need to take action.

I wish I'd thought to do this before I hit my 'bump in the road'. I could have avoided a lot of anxiety and worry if I had.

The results of the quiz can only be seen by you, unless you choose to share them.

The good news is that if you follow through on the exercises in today's challenge, you are starting to build your self-awareness. This is a crucial first step in re-assuming control.

Going forward you'll be able to use the list of your stress signals to check whether you're heading toward unwanted stress levels.

You can use the other challenges in this series to dial down and deal with your stress.

Today's Challenge

So go ahead and write down the list of stress signals which typically affect you. If you're not sure which ones to pick, create a snippet of canned text and a reminder to prompt you to record anything you observe each day. Here's how to do it.

I did this exercise when I first began to tackle my own stress. I found it was helpful to make a note each day as I wrote in my journal of any signals that I was noticing.

I really want to encourage you to do this task — it won't take long and you'll have some useful intelligence you can use for later in the  series.

Important Note: Stress can cause serious health problems. Stress signals may also be an indication of a serious underlying problem. If you're in any doubt about this please refer to your local health practitioner. Here's an illustration from the Stress Institute which shows how your body reacts under stress.​

How To Create A Stress Signal Prompt


I use TextExpander and OmniFocus. Microsoft Word also has a 'canned text' function and you can use any reminder-based app. 

I record my snippets in Day One which is a highly recommended journaling app.


1. Record your 'canned text' snippet.

Here's an example:

'Make a note of any stress signals I've noticed. Watch out for heartburn and tension in the jaw which tend to be my early warning signs:





Set the trigger which you use to summon the snippet as something memorable, for example '.stresss'.

2. Set a daily reminder.

I have mine set to go off thirty minutes before my scheduled departure time from work. 

Then, each day I follow the same routine.

3. Open Day One at the allotted time:

One of the reasons I like Day One so much is that it is very quick and takes care of all the admin details (time of day, location etc) automatically.

4. Invoke Snippet:

Tap in your snippet cue and then make a note of any signals you're aware of.

5. Review at the end of each month:

I set an additional reminder for the end of each month to review the entries I've made and see if any new signals have appeared.

Infographic: Stress Reactions


What Are Your Stress Signals? Share What You Notice 

Finally, let us know what you discover by dropping a note the comments below.

By sharing your stress signals you could encourage someone else to take a step towards tackling their stress and start improving the quality of their life.

Tomorrow I'll be providing some advice about what to do when you're feeling overwhelmed along with another challenge to complete.

Full List Of Stress Signals


Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain

Frequent colds, infections, herpes sores

 Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse

Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts

Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tappings

Gritting, grinding teeth

 Rashes, itching, hives, “goose bumps”

Frequent urination

Trouble learning new information

Little interest in appearance, punctuality

 Stuttering or stammering

 Unexplained or frequent “allergy” attacks

Diminished sexual desire or performance

Forgetfulness, dis-organization, confusion

Social withdrawal and isolation

 Tremors, trembling of lips, hands

Heartburn, stomach pain, nausea

Weight gain or loss without diet

 Difficulty in making decisions

Increased frustration, irritability, edginess

Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms

Excess belching, flatulence

Problems in communication or sharing

 Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed

Overreaction to petty annoyances

Light headedness, faintness, dizziness

Constipation, diarrhoea, loss of control

Excess anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousness

Increased smoking, alcohol or drug use

Increased number of minor accidents

Ringing, buzzing or “popping sounds

Excessive gambling or impulse buying

Increased anger, frustration, hostility

Difficulty breathing, frequent sighing

Obsessive or compulsive behaviour

 Frequent blushing, sweating

 Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue

Depression, frequent or wild mood swings

Frequent crying spells or suicidal thoughts

Reduced work efficiency or productivity

 Cold or sweaty hands, feet

Frequent use of over-the-counter drugs

Increased or decreased appetite

Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness

Lies or excuses to cover up poor work

 Dry mouth, problems swallowing

Sudden attacks of life threatening panic

Insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams

Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness

Rapid or mumbled speech