What Everyone Should Know About Stress

In this article, you'll learn how and why stress can be both healthy and unhealthy, so you can promote good stress and avoid unhealthy stress. At the same time, you can read about what you need to look out for in yourself or a colleague to prevent stress from developing.

February 2023
min read
01-What Everyone Should Know About Stress
Skrevet af
Written by
Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psykolog, specialiseret i pædagogisk psykologi og formidling.

Christine Victoria Siegrist

Content Developer, Psykologistuderende ved Aarhus Universitet.

Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psychologist, specialized in educational psychology and communication.

Christine Victoria Siegrist

Content Developer, Psychology student at Aarhus University.

Stress as a survival mechanism

Stress has become part of most people's vocabulary. You've probably heard or even used phrases like: "Oh, I feel stressed", "I had a stressful morning" or "I'm so stressed about the next deadline at work".

We often use the term in everyday speech, but what does it mean to be "stressed" and why do we become so?

<hl>Stress is a biological response that has ensured our survival since we lived as primitive people in the East African savannah.<hl>

Stress is the survival mechanism that enabled your ancestors to escape from a lion or fight off a hyena. And even though you no longer have to fight or flee for your life, the same mechanism still kicks in when you get stressed before an important meeting, when you work faster to meet an important deadline, or when you are in conflict with your partner.

This brief stress is not dangerous.

<hl>As long as the stress is short-lived, it helps you cope<hl> because the stress hormones your body releases make you more energetic and increase your focus.

The stress hormones enable you to work efficiently to meet your deadline, and the hormones help you keep your cool during that important meeting.

From healthy to unhealthy stress

The short-term stress is therefore not dangerous. It is not dangerous as long as your body has the opportunity to recover and relax afterward. It is only...

… if the short-term stress is prolonged, it starts to become unhealthy for you.

...when those few long days at work leading up to a deadline are no longer just a few days but might turn into weeks.

...when the worry about Monday's meeting doesn't just fill your head on Sunday but hangs over your head all week.

... when you find yourself losing track, forgetting appointments, or having trouble sleeping, you need to consider whether you are under more pressure than you used to be.

<hl>Long-term or unhealthy stress does not build up from Monday to Wednesday<hl>. Long-term stress builds up over a long time and is often something that sneaks up on you. That's why many people don't know they are under pressure until it has developed into unhealthy stress.

Catch the stress signals in time

To catch stress before it develops into long-term stress, you need to know the typical stress signals. By knowing the typical signs of stress, you will not only be able to nip your stress in the bud but also know when a friend or colleague needs support.

Stress signals are typically divided into three:

  1. Physical stress signals
  2. Psychological stress signals
  3. Behavioral stress signals

Physical stress signals

Often, the most obvious sign of stress is that the <hl>body starts giving signals it usually doesn't<hl>. These signals include palpitations, headaches, and sweating.

If you - or someone you know - are experiencing these symptoms, it may mean that you have more to do at work or home than usual.

At the same time, it is important to stress that the presence of these symptoms does not mean that you are stressed. Many people experience stomach upsets, a reduced libido or a bit of a headache from time to time. It does not mean that they are necessarily stressed.

But if you don't normally experience these signals and they start to show up, it might be a good idea to consider whether you have more going on than you used to.

Physical Stress Signals

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat and high pulse
  • Shaking hands
  • Chest pains and pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body tension
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stomach and digestive issues
  • Reduced libido
  • Frequent infections


  • Is your body giving you physical signals it's not used to?
  • Do you have a friend or colleague whom you can see is under more pressure than they usually are?

Psychological stress signals

In contrast to the physical signs of stress, <hl>the mental signs of stress are often harder to spot<hl>.

We as humans are experts at adapting and getting used to things. Therefore, it is often only when we are aware of it that we detect the psychological signals that we are under pressure or stress.  

The psychological signals are, for example, increased fatigue, forgetfulness, many worries, or thoughts of disaster.  As with the physical signs, you may experience some of the psychological stress signs without being seriously stressed.

For example, many people are generally conscientious and therefore often worry. This does not mean that all conscientious people also suffer from stress. But if you don't usually have trouble concentrating. If you don't normally have a lot of catastrophic thoughts and you start to, it might be a good idea to consider whether there is something at work or in your personal life that is putting pressure on you.

Psychological Stress Signals

  • Feeling guilty
  • Forgetfulness
  • Nervousness
  • Sensitivity to critique
  • Aggression and frustration
  • Feeling worried
  • Powerlessness
  • Feeling tired


  • Are you thriving in your work and personal life, or have you experienced signs in the past month that something is not as it should be?

Behavioral Stress Signals

<hl>Our behavior - the things we do - often reveals how we feel<hl>. For example, whether we are under more pressure than usual. Often, we don't realize we've changed behavior until we notice it ourselves or others bring it to our attention.

If you suspect that you are under more pressure than usual, it may therefore be a good idea to consider whether you have changed your behavior recently. Typical behavioral signs of stress include difficulty sleeping, increased coffee intake, and increased irritability.

Again, it's important to mention that, as with both physical and psychological signs of stress, you can easily experience some of these signs without it meaning you're stressed.

For example, many people have trouble falling asleep occasionally or tend to be a bit forgetful. That doesn't mean they're stressed.

But if you notice that recently you've started drinking more coffee than you used to, or if you've started to have a shorter temper with your colleagues, this could be a sign that you're experiencing the beginnings of stress without even knowing it.

So, it's a good idea to consider whether you've changed your behavior in any of these areas.

Behavioral Stress Signals

  • Binge eating or forgetting to eat
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased consumption of alcohol, coffee, or medicin
  • Irritability
  • Decreased sense of humor


  • Have you changed your behavior over the past month?
  • If you have, do you recognize any of the typical behavioral stress signals?

Take-away messages

  • Stress is a biological response that has ensured our survival
  • Stress only becomes unhealthy when it is prolonged
  • <hl>You can catch stress in time by paying attention to physical, mental, and behavioral cues<hl>

  • Kingston, M., 2020: Førstehjælp til stressramte. Forlag: Klim
  • Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., and Siegel, S., 2005: STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 1: 607–628

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