What is stress?


Stress is an instinctive and automatic part of the body’s reaction to perceived danger. When there is danger, the heart starts beating faster, we become more sensitive to our surroundings and we get ready for ‘fight or flight’. While this stress response is helpful when we need to enter physical combat or run to ensure our survival, modern lifestyles tend to give us stressful situations but little outlet for the stress response.

Basic stress is normally higher on missions as the work and surroundings are different

In our work today, we might be worried about a project, feeling tense because of a disagreement with a colleague, or working furiously hard to meet a deadline. These daily stressors still cause a stress response, which we call ‘Basic stress’. Everyone encounters basic stress, and we can mostly cope with it ok. Basic stress is normally higher on missions as the work and surroundings are different.


Many people today encounter ‘Cumulative stress’. This is caused when stress comes too often, lasts too long or is too intense. Some people are affected by ‘Critical incident stress’, which is caused by a specific, difficult incident or traumatic event (usually sudden and life-threatening).

Stress responses can be positive in that we work harder, faster or we may be more prepared to tackle or escape a situation. However, stress can also impact long term health and wellbeing.

There are warning signs to let us know that stress may be impacting our health and that we need help. Indicators include:

Physical – back pain, headaches, digestive problems, getting sick often, weight gain or loss, sleeping problems.

Cognitive  – depression, anxiety/nervousness, difficulty making decisions, loss of motivation, poor memory.

Social – lack of interest in work/hobbies, comments from friends or family about changes in our weight or behaviour, not being able to ‘face people’.

Emotional – anger, guilt, frustration, anxiety, feeling ‘on edge’.




The OCHA Staff Counsellor can help you learn about stress and manage the impacts of stress in your life.

For more about stress

How Stressed are You? This is a quick reference test from the Headington Institute to self assess your stress level. It is not a clinical diagnostic instrument but it can be useful in helping you identify some of the more common symptoms of stress.

Preventing Burnout This is a short paper from the Headington Institute on the topic of Preventing Burnout. With a focus on resilience-enhancing behaviors, it provides evidence-based activities that may help us resist burnout. There is also present four strategies that Humanitarian organisations can employ in an attempt to prevent burnout.


What is stress in field life? A concise post from the site, ‘Center for Humanitarian Psychology‘. It discusses stress in Field life, how to recognize signs of stress, and some tools for coping with stress.


What causes stress in humanitarian work? A informative post from the site, ‘Center for Humanitarian Psychology‘ that lists the main causes of stress in Field work.


A guide for humanitarian, health care and human rights workers This is a paper from the ‘Center for Psychology and Society State University of New York College at Old Westbury



Aid Worker Pocket Card, by Actions Without Boarders

Aid Worker Pocket Card, by Actions Without Boarders
Aid Worker Pocket Card, by Actions Without Boarders