15 Emotional Signs of Stress in the Workplace

Stress is the body’s way to respond to threatening external situations. At some point, stress can act as a way of protection. It can help improve your concentration, focus, and alertness. However, once it gets out of control, it can lead to major, and sometimes irreparable, damages to the health.

Commonly, it is easy to know you are stressed by the way you look. Probably, you have become thinner than before, and your eye bags and wrinkles are more evident now. Perhaps you look stiff, or you seem to be just tired. Your aura is no longer exuding positivity. While these can all be signs of stress, there are also emotional indicators for it.

So what are the signs of stress in the office? Here are 15 emotional signs of stress in the Workplace:

– Anxiety

– Nervousness

– Irritability

– Anger

– Frustration

– Feeling Overwhelmed

– Moodiness

– Loneliness

– Agitation

– Compulsiveness

– Perfectionism

– Self-Pity

– Shame

– Wanting to Isolate

– Apathy

1.    Anxiety

In one studyOpens in a new tab. conducted in the UK, it was revealed that anxiety which comes from stress accounted for 44% of cases of work-related ill health and 57% of all working days which were lost because of ill health of the workers. Apparently, anxiety did have a direct effect on people’s overall well-being; thus affecting their performance at work. The pinpointed stress triggers resulting in anxiety include pressure from tight deadlines, unbearable responsibilities, and lack of managerial support.

Anxiety is suspected of developing in a person’s amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of emotional responses. When you face stressful situations or the triggers as described above, your brain will send signals to other parts of the body.

These signals communicate that your body needs to prepare to either fight or flee. The body then responds by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s stress hormones. As such, you will start to feel uneasy and worried. A lot of thoughts can go running through your head, and you may no longer notice that you are already experiencing panic attacks.

Being anxious is a normal response of the body to stressful events. However, when you persistently experience both stress and anxiety over prolonged periods, you may need to seek professional help already because this is a high-risk condition which could trigger other physical disorders also.

2.    Nervousness

Related to anxiety, stress can also make you feel nervous. The fear of the unknown makes you ask questions about what can happen next after the stressful situation occurred. “Will I be able to address the stressor? What will happen as I find the solutions to my problems? Will these stressful events happen again in the future?” All these thoughts would cause you to feel afraid, and without people who can ease your inner storms, you would find it challenging to overcome nervousness.

According to studies, excessive stress levels can lead to nervous breakdowns. It is a condition when a person can no longer function normally because of increased stress levels. Even the usual things that you do like going to work or school, taking care of your family, or stepping outside would be too hard for you to do already.

Be careful, though, because nervous breakdown does not necessarily require one full-blown stressful situation. It is more of a buildup of stress, pressure, and anxiety which eventually leads to nervous breakdown.

To avoid breakdown before it happens, it would be best for you to improve your stress coping skills. Do not let your stressors take the best of you by giving time for yourself. Listen to what your body needs and follow it when it tells you that you need to take a pause or even come to a full stop. This way, your stress level will not reach its breaking point.

3.    Irritability

When you stress out and get irritated, you would tend to respond negatively to situations in an almost instantaneous way. Sometimes, nearly every single stressful trigger, no matter how petty, would immediately make you upset and disappointed.

You went out, and you saw a lady frowning towards your direction, then you get irritated. While walking, you encounter children running around, thereby delaying you for a bit, so you get irritated too. Even those seemingly unconnected things increase your stress level.

Aside from that, irritabilityOpens in a new tab. makes you emotionally closed against people in your life with whom you are normally attached to, like a significant other. You may start to disregard their situations and feelings because you get narrowed down by your stress and irritation.

You may think you can only vent out your negative emotions to people you do not know. But sometimes, you unknowingly channel your irritation towards the people in your inner circle. The catch is they get affected easily simply because they are close to you.

To manage this, it would be best for you to communicate what you are going through. Tell your partner or your friend about how bad your day was so they could understand where you are coming from. Apologize quickly if you suddenly snap and get irritated at them.

Explain properly what you need and what you want. Similar to other stress symptoms, it is completely normal to feel cranky from time to time. But when irritability happens regularly, there could be a deeper reason behind it.

4.    Anger

There is one type of stress called “eustressOpens in a new tab.” or healthy stress. It is a kind of stress that motivates you and pushes you to work harder to achieve your goals. It does not cause you to be angry or agitated. It works as some driving force to keep you working to fulfill your plans. It fuels you to move forward.

However, there is also another kind of stress called “distress.” It is that type of stress that makes you downright angry. It no longer serves to motivate you because it backlashes and explodes. It weighs you down and pushes you backward. Whatever milestone you have set for yourself seems so far-fetched because of the intense stress level.

There are a lot of reasons why people respond in an angry way when they are stressed. First, it is a form of defending the self. People sometimes get mad as a form of diversion or coping mechanism to repel the negative effects of stress on the body.

On the other hand, anger could also work as an outlet or a way of self-expression. People are often better able to cope with stress when they can release their feelings, and most people do that when they get mad.

Regardless of the reason behind your angry response, the smart way out of a stressful situation is finding “eustress.” This is a way of managing your anger to let stress work for you and not against you. It takes both practice and skill to perfect anger management. Seeking the help of counselors could help you big time when it comes to managing your anger levels. Some people need constant communication and support from these people to get over their anger issues.

5.    Frustration

When faced with a complicated scenario, it is only normal for you to try and find a way to overcome the hurdle. You would naturally think of all the means by which you could deal with the issue and therefore, let go of the stressor.

You would exert all of your effort to plan out how to effectively deal with your problems. However, when things still do not go as intended, and the stressor persists, that is when frustration comes in the picture. It poisons your mind and entangles you. It keeps you from pushing forward. It consumes you even before you know it.

Frustration shows itself in ways that are similar to the other effects of stress. It can be observed you get easily annoyed than the usual. Your patience seems to run out more quickly. Minor issues would become a big deal for you all of a sudden, or you may feel upset and channel that disappointment towards other people.

You would often raise your voice when feeling threatened by the other people when you would normally not do that. All these stress responses could cause emotional instability on you and could weigh you down.

When feeling frustrated, take a step back and rest. Try to have a quick nap or go for a sleep. It could help wash away the negativities and rejuvenate your inner self. You might want to take a break from personal interaction also. Go for a walk or buy food to cool down. Quickly watch funny videos over the internet or go online shopping, if that relieves your stress. These small things could help prevent unwanted and irreversible emotional outbursts on others.

6.    Feeling Overwhelmed

When you are so used to multi-tasking or juggling multiple responsibilities, you run the risk of not being able to manage all of it at the same time. You might be so preoccupied with work, but then a family member gets sick, and you need to do some errands for that.

After that, your significant other might call you telling he/she is experiencing a difficult financial situation and would need your help. Soon, a friend goes to you and tells you about an upcoming project or event that you need to do together. It seems like a lot of things can happen in just a day and all of it is too much to handle.

The burden of having to manage all of these things, among others, can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly, all the stressful events pile up one over the other. When left unmanaged, this could lead to burnoutOpens in a new tab.. It is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion brought about by overwhelming stress levels. It makes you feel powerless, helpless and worn out. It reduces your productivity and overall happiness and also sacrifices your relationships with people.

Psychologists recommend the 3R approach to deal with burnout (Recognize, Reverse, and Resilience). Recognize burnout and assess yourself regularly. Do not deny it. When you feel it, acknowledge it.

Only then will you be able to address burnout. Next, reverse the effects by immediately seeking professional help. Psychiatrists have a way towards helping you get back to your usual self and rejuvenate after a burnout. Finally, resilience is key to living positively every day. Even with the stressors out there, you need to learn to continue living your life because, in reality, stress is always present in this life. You need to learn how to live even with its presence.

7.    Moodiness

When you are constantly exposed to stressors, you may also exhibit mood swings. These are extreme, unexpected, and unpredictable fluctuations in your emotional state. You will often alternate between feelings of happiness and irritability. People sometimes attach it to bipolar disorder which has similar symptoms. You get a full range of emotions from extremely happy to extremely sad. Short bouts would do, but prolonged periods of mood swings can raise concerns.

Mood swingsOpens in a new tab. are a result of an imbalance in brain chemicals which are associated with mood regulation. These hormonal changes can, in turn, cause stressful situations. The stress response of your body secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream.

They immediately travel to different spots in your body and act as catalysts of physiological and emotional changes. The body needs these changes to fortify its ability to deal with external threats. After that, the fight or flight response sets.

For you to overcome these mood swings and stress, experts recommend addressing the stressor – even gradually. Exercise regularly, eat healthily, get enough sleep, and practice relaxation. These things are known to alleviate your mood and overall well-being.

You may also work with an experienced therapist, life coach, or counselor for them to give ample guidance as you work your way towards dealing with stressful life events.

8.    Loneliness

According to a series of studies conducted by John Cacioppo, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, it was revealed that people who experience intense stress levels are lonelier than those who are not as stressed.

Loneliness increases the levels of stress hormones circulating in the body. In another observational study among the working age population, depression was more prevalent among those who encounter more stressors every day.

When you become stressed, you feel general unhappiness towards life. There is less enthusiasm about things you used to enjoy. For example, a person who would normally love to go on travels may suddenly withdraw and prefer to stay at home because he feels down and heavy.

Stress can shift a person’s mood from high to low in just a short period. It is because sustained stress levels inhibit the production of happy hormones such as endorphin and serotonin. They disrupt your body’s normal chemical systems and homeostasis.

One way to overcome loneliness resulting from stress is by spending time with a good bunch of friends. You could be seen to develop a more positive outlook towards life when you are amid a strong support system.

This is very important especially nowadays when it gets all too easy to receive negative comments from people who do not even know you. The importance of having people who got your back no matter what the situation is cannot be overemphasized.  

9.    Agitation

You may also feel agitated for a couple of reasons. But the number one cause of agitation is stress – may it be from work, school, family, or relationships. It is when you feel aggravated, annoyed, or restless because of a stressor.

When agitated, one obvious symptom is a sudden angry outburst that could come from a generally relaxed person. Other physical indicators include clenching of the fists, talking too much, looking stiff, wringing of hands, or pacing of the feet.

There is actually a form of depression known as “agitated depressionOpens in a new tab..” This is related to loneliness such that it is diagnosed when a person has shown depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in life for at least two weeks. It is different from bipolar disorder because that involves more of a fluctuating state of highs and lows.

Agitated depression is more on the lows. You get all too focused on the negativities and just like a magnet, you attract negative energies too. Hence, it further fuels your agitation.

Stress relieving methodsOpens in a new tab. are the best ways to minimize, or even eliminate, agitation. Opt for the relaxation methods, those that draw you into quietness and stillness. This way can counteract the hype of agitation. It includes engaging in physical activities like exercise or relaxing techniques like meditation and deep breathing. Yoga and pilates can also be done. For others, just a simple massage or trip to the spa will do. These are all meant to calm your mind and body and prepare you for the days ahead.

10.    Compulsiveness

In times of stress, people can also create compulsive responses. It is not easily observable at first, because you might fall into the trap of justifying your actions because of the stress that you are encountering.

Compulsiveness happens when you do things you do not usually do such as overeating or eating your comfort food excessively. For some, they could immerse themselves in vices such as alcohol and cigarettes. These diversion tactics are attractive because of the promise of instant gratification. They provide temporary relief to the stress that you are feeling.

However, the dangers of compulsiveness lie exactly on its temporariness. It is fleeting. It is only good while it lasts. Soon, when you have consumed all the food, when the effect of alcohol has run out of your blood, and the smoke of the cigarettes have died down, you will snap back to the reality and realize nothing changed. Worse, instead of providing a way to relieve stress and solve your problems, the compulsive behaviors may only develop into obsession and introduce you to more vices.

Before things get out of hand and your one-time compulsive behavior turns into full-blown obsession, slow down now. Take things in moderation. It is not wrong to indulge in your comfort food or have a good night out with friends, but do not do it excessively. Self-control is the key to ensuring you can relax your mind, but you do not get yourself into other unwanted troubles.

11.    Perfectionism

Under stressful situations, you may experience hypersensitivity to criticism. You become too afraid to fail and knowing that people have expectations of your performance only makes things worse. You become too hard on yourself, and you fill your mind and heart with self-imposed expectations to do things flawlessly. You get so meticulous about the way you resolve your problems.

This is, in fact, an even more stressful way to deal with stress. According to Prem Fry, a professor in psychology at Trinity Western University in Canada, perfectionismOpens in a new tab. beyond a certain threshold backfires and becomes an impediment.

You get to see the full effects of this backlash in a situation wherein you have given your best, and you expect to be perfect, only to fail yourself in the end. Once again, you impose impossible expectations on yourself. The cycle goes on and the stressful situation never really gets addressed to its roots.

Dealing with perfectionism is something that can be achieved, but not overnight because it is a process. It involves a drastic change in perspective. You need to relax your standards and allow yourself to grow and make mistakes. Only by letting yourself learn from these mistakes will you be able to cope with stress and manage your expectations.

12.    Self-Pity

Unfortunately, not all people get past the perfectionism stage. Many people think they have found a way to cope with stress by being a perfectionist. But they are, in reality, stuck in its perennial spiral. And when things falter one after the other, the extreme introspection brought about by the severe stress levels would trigger self-pity.

Self-pity is a frequent response to stress. Sometimes, you can get too engrossed in the stressful situation and the fact you still cannot successfully get over it. Because of that, you start to feel sorry for yourself, thinking you are solely to blame for where you ended up. It will feel like every action you will try to make moving forward will just cause more misery.

Then, you direct your attention inwards and blame yourself for not making it through the stressful event as quickly as to how others would have done it or as quickly as to how you perceive it should be done.

To get over self-pity or avoid being a victim to it, begin with knowing that everyone has a cross to carry. Keep comparisons to a minimum. Our daily lives have been riddled with a lot of stress already, do yourself a favor and do not add another layer of that to your personal life. Choose to believe in yourself all the time.

13.    Shame

According to Pernille Steen Pedersen from the Department of Management, Politics, and Philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School, shameOpens in a new tab. involves the fear of being exposed and developing a sense of dread that other would find out that you are not good enough. It is an internal demon that captures you, and it gets stronger as you feed it with your anxious and self-blaming thoughts.

When none of these efforts come into fruition, shame enters the picture. You might observe yourself getting these thoughts. You may feel embarrassed for not making it through, for not finding the way out, or solely for not being enough.

It is a trap, a slippery slope that makes you feel disappointed on yourself for not being strong enough, mature enough, and good enough to conquer whatever is causing your stress. This emotional response is side-by-side self-pity and the unreasonable perfectionist attitude.

With regard to shame, however, experts recommend managers have an excellent opportunity to curb the downward spiral caused by shame in the workplace. Lowering the employee’s workload or allowing them to take the days off will not always be of help. On the contrary, managers can work together with employees to set work tasks reasonably in terms of quality and pace. Reward systems could also work.

14.    Wanting to Isolate

When stress has become all too consuming and dragging, you may sometimes find yourself wanting to be alone. You might just want to go home and sleep in your room all day without having to think of other people for once. Despite the always nagging responsibility, it is easier to shut off yourself from everything.

For instance, if you used to be an extroverted and outgoing person, this sudden shift in preference is a glaring sign of stress. So instead of seeking other people’s company, you may want to keep it to yourself.

A lot of things could be fueling this withdrawal. For one, you may be worried that sharing your stressful thoughts with other people might stress them out also and you are afraid to be an added burden.

Aside from that, you might just be protecting other people because if you start interacting with others, you may unknowingly channel your anger towards them instead. You would rather suffer alone than drag anybody with your stress.

When you do not know what to do anymore, and you would prefer to sulk in loneliness alone, remember that you do not always have to. It can help you to some extent, but never forget that there are people who are willing to help. There are a lot of helplines nowadays for mental health practitioners who are just one email away.

15.    Apathy

Apathy appears to be the opposite of stressing out. By definition, it means a lack of emotion or the capacity to express emotion. At the outset, this is probably the last thing that a person under stress would consider to do.

When faced with pressure and demands, your natural response would be to try to deal with it. It is almost automatic for you to look for a solution. You may withdraw from the stressful environment for a while; similar to what has been discussed above regarding the desire to isolate yourself.

However, withdrawal can only take you so far. At a certain point when the situation or environment becomes exceptionally stressful and even physically depriving, you may eventually regress into complete withdrawal.

When things pile up one over the other, and you start to feel that there seems to be nothing you can do about it, the next response would be the lack of response. You will begin to be indifferent, “come what may.” As you turn towards the defense of apathy, you feel entirely convinced no matter what you do; the stressors would not go away.

To increase your engagement towards your environment and life in general, start setting small, realistic goals. Focus on these mini milestones and do not be too hard on yourself. Tap the help of licensed mental health therapists. They are in the best positions to help you when you have given up into apathy. Soon enough, you will find yourself getting back to your old state and loving life as it is again.

Related Questions:

What are the physical repercussions of stress in the workplace? These emotional signs of stress pose serious threats to your body when left unchecked because they do not only affect you emotionally. Instead, they have real and direct repercussions on your physical well-being. A lot of diseases and even cancers are actually tied up to stress.


How do you deal with stress in the workplace? There are 3 most important ways to deal with stress. They would be to (1) love yourself more, (2) find a good bunch of people who will support you all the way, and (3) do not be afraid to ask for help from learned professionals who are more than willing to help. While stress is not something that can be completely zeroed out in your life, it can be managed. With the help of the right people and you own will to keep moving forward in the midst of stress, nothing is ever too difficult that you cannot handle.

Steve Todd

Steve Todd, founder of Open Sourced Workplace and is a recognized thought leader in workplace strategy and the future of work. With a passion for work from anywhere, Steve has successfully implemented transformative strategies that enhance productivity and employee satisfaction. Through Open Sourced Workplace, he fosters collaboration among HR, facilities management, technology, and real estate professionals, providing valuable insights and resources. As a speaker and contributor to various publications, Steve remains dedicated to staying at the forefront of workplace innovation, helping organizations thrive in today's dynamic work environment.

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