Non-verbal cues that someone is stressed – and how to help

Sometimes you don't need to say a thing for people to know you're stressed out.
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Sometimes you don't need to say a thing for people to know you're stressed out.

"Calm down" or "don't worry about it so much". Two of the key phrases that don't help people when they're stressed, and in fact, can make them feel uptight and thus increase their stress levels. 

Few actually say the words "I'm stressed", and usually their stress levels are in their body language. Whether it's your partner at home or a colleague at work, here are some of the tell-tale non-verbal cues that somebody is stressed (and how you can help).


One of the first ways in which people project their stress is through unusually sharp e-mails. Often we take personal offence – we wonder, "did I do something wrong?" – but when somebody is short with you over e-communication it's probably because they're feeling strung out.

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What you can do: Don't ask, "have I upset you?". A stressed person already has enough problems, and that only gives them one more. Allow them some digital space and hold off on sending them e-mails and other messages for the day. If you can put a little less pressure on somebody's inbox, it's a help.


Rather than bursting out, many people go quiet and become introverted when they're stressed; a sort of method of self-preservation, perhaps, to try and keep up a facade of coping.

What you can do: Leave them alone. Not for too long – a couple of hours maximum. People need time to reflect and pull themselves back up. Somebody who goes quiet when they're stressed will unlikely be receptive to active help and the best thing you can do is just be there when they come out the other side. 

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Once upon a time we might have called them "nervous ticks". Some people's stress manifests with a physical activity, like when they become fidgety and can't sit still, repetitive tapping or pulling of an object or body part, or even just rubbing their faces.

What you can do: It can help to get a stressed person out of their environment, even for just a few moments. You don't have to be explicit and tell them you can see by their fidgety hands that they need a break; instead, just suggest going outside for some air or grabbing a cup of coffee with no ulterior motive. It'll help break their pattern.


There's a difference between being on-the-ball and being wired. The former suggests calm competency, the latter infers a person is running on adrenaline. This isn't to say that being wired is a bad thing (some people do their best work under pressure). For others, however, it's where you become frantic and start making mistakes.

What you can do: When somebody is wired it's almost impossible for them to see outside of their periphery. They're like a horse with blinkers on, and often become single-minded in pushing through the stress and finishing the job. What they can't see is how they might be delaying their progress because they're so stuck in their heads. This is another good opportunity for a quick change of scenery to break out of that. 


Forgive the cliché. Seeing someone's alcohol consumption go up is an easy way to see they are struggling and in need of a crutch. If they're drinking more than usual it isn't necessarily a sign they "need help", but rather, a sign they need to help themselves. 

What you can do: Talk to them. No accusations. Your objective is simply to get them to see what you see, and hopefully grasp that booze is not a legitimate or sustainable way of coping through stressful times.


Some people experience direct stomach problems when they're stressed, including pain, constipation and diarrhoea. It is thought that this can be because of an imbalance in gut flora or changes in diet. Where it's the latter, it can be because some people crave sugary and fatty convenience foods because when a person is stressed, eating healthily becomes a burden.

What you can do: You can't force somebody to take better care of their bodies when they're going through a rough period, but you can make it easier for them. If we're talking about your partner, flatmate, or family member, make healthy food for them. If it's a colleague, friend, or somebody else you wouldn't usually feed (but do often eat with), take charge of choosing venues for lunch and dinner to gently guide their diet by putting healthy options right in front of their faces.


Persistent physical illness can be a keen sign that someone is experiencing mental stress, because stressed people get run down, run down people have compromised immune systems, and compromised immune systems mean people frequently become sick. It's as simple as that.

What you can do: Force rest. Sick days are there for a reason, and no matter how important a person thinks they are, life will go on if they take a few days to get their immune system back up to speed. Also, if you're sick you can only ever really work at 50 per cent. By convincing somebody to take time off so they can come back at 100 per cent, they will eventually make up for lost time. 

 - Stuff


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