MODULE ONE | Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress

PART FOUR | Signs of Stress

Experiences that are perceived as threatening or demanding trigger a series of approximately 1,500 biochemical reactions within the body. Stress chemicals (such as adrenaline and cortisol) are dumped into the bloodstream and trigger the “fight or flight” response.

These chemicals prepare us to deal with threatening and dangerous events. For example, an elevated heart rate means that more blood is being pumped to our muscles and brain so that we can assess the threat and either fight, or run away faster. However, the fight or flight response isn’t good at helping us deal with many of the chronic stressors that we are exposed to in life. For most people, fighting or running away are not realistic options for dealing with stressors they encounter at work – not if they want to keep their jobs!

So, if fighting and running away aren’t feasible options, how do we manage these stress reactions? A good first step is learning to recognize the signs of stress that most often appear in our lives.

Reactions to stress are complex and tend to manifest in different ways for different people. The characteristics of the person (e.g., their physical and mental health, level of social support, and previous history of trauma) interact with the characteristics of the event (e.g., the magnitude and type of stressful event, the presence of cumulative stressors and other life events) to influence people’s experiences and reactions.

Stress chemicals can trigger physical reactions that can linger for days, weeks, or sometimes months. In addition to triggering physical reactions, stress hormones and chemicals affect brain chemistry and impact the way we think and feel. Over time, as our bodies, emotions and minds are affected by stress, this has implications for our spiritual selves too. Spirituality is a core component of human nature. Spirituality shapes and informs our sense of meaning and purpose, faith and hope. Whether experienced as an explicit belief in a deity, a more diffuse sense of transcendence or connectedness with nature or a life force, or a belief in human nature and solidarity, most people believe that to be fully human involves more than simply the physical dimensions of existence. Over time the types of challenges that aid workers face can impact their worldview – their conceptions of God, humanity, and where they derive their sense of meaning, purpose and hope. Finally, with the mix of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual symptoms, it’s not surprising that stress often shows up in our behavior. The following are some common signs of cumulative stress:


  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in appetite
  • Stomach upsets
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tremors & tension
  • Back & neck pain
  • Headaches
  • Inability to relax & rest
  • Being easily startled


  • Mood swings
  • Feeling “over-emotional”
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Emotional numbness


  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion and disorganized thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Dreams or nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts


  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Loss of meaning
  • Discouragement & loss of hope
  • Cynicism
  • Doubt
  • Anger at God
  • Alienation & loss of sense of connection


  • Risk taking (such as driving recklessly)
  • Over-eating or under-eating
  • Increased smoking
  • Listlesness
  • Hyper-alterness
  • Aggression

For personal reflection…

  • Have you noticed any of these general signs of stress lately?
  • When you are under pressure, which of these signs of stress tend to appear first?
© Headington Institute 2007