Do You Have Any “Tells” That Show That You’re Feeling Stressed?

I really work on paying attention to the clues my self is giving myself.

For instance, I think of myself in the third person. That allows me to manage myself better.

I also follow the resolution to Pay attention to my “tells.” (A “tell,” in poker, is an action or expression that serves as a clue to whether a person has a good hand or bad hand; without meaning to, you “tell” what you’ve got). A few years ago, I finally noticed that I have two very obvious “tells” that indicate that I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

First, I need about three extra hours of sleep each night.

Second, I hanker to re-read some of my favorite works of children’s literature. Notice, I say “re-read,” because when I’m in this mood, I don’t want to read anything new. I want to re-read something I already love. That way, I get the pleasure of reading without the special effort and suspense of reading a book for the first time. I can really savor the details.  (Along the same lines, a recent study made the interesting case that watching re-runs of a favorite TV show can boost your will-power.)

Well, today I feel perfectly normal, but I suspect I’m feeling overwhelmed–did I mention that my new book, Happier at Home, came out a few days ago?–because I went to sleep at 8:15 pm last night, and I’ve been standing in front of my Shrine to Children’s Literature, to try to decide what to re-read this weekend.

I’ve worn out so many books (His Dark Materials, Narnia, Little Women books, Anne of Green Gables, etc., etc.) that they need to lie fallow for several years, before I can re-read them again. So…what will it be? Something excellent, and epic, and I do believe I’m in the mood for fantasy. Although some people argue that The Lord of the Rings isn’t properly considered children’s literature, I do put it in that category, and I think that’s what I’ll read.

Children’s literature is one of my joys, and it’s also my mental comfort food.

I used to ignore or fight my tells, now I pay very close attention to them, which allows me to handle stress much better.

How about you? Do you have any “tells” that show that you’re under stress–even when you might not have consciously realized it? Do you have any comfort food activities that help you deal with it?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.


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Enter your name and email in the sign-up form here, and every day, a name will be picked at random. U.S.Canada, and U.K. only–sorry about that restriction on the give-away.

  • Victoria

    Harry Potter on audio read by Jim Dale is my go to space when I am feeling stressed.

    • gretchenrubin

      A GREAT thing to do. What a treat.

  • Sara

    I start to loose important things–house keys, car keys, drivers license, debit card, etc–when I’m really stressed.

    • gretchenrubin

      I do this as well! A big warning sign.

    • peninith1

      Yes–losing things, making mistakes like forgetting my phone, locking keys in the car (with the car running-that’s CRISIS level stress behavior) dropping things, walking into things, going to the grocery store and forgetting to bring the groceries home (seriously) and being unable to sleep or relax. That’s crisis level stress. Fortunately it is rare and in response to events any normal person would agree is major stress.

      When I’m just a bit overloaded or moderately stressed, I eat comfort food and revert to favorite Sherlock Holmes stories or mysteries I have read before–especially the series by Martha Grimes, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels, and for total escape, Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody novels, which are a delightful trip with a the hilariously confident Amelia Peabody Emerson and her family into pre-WWI archaeology in Egypt. This comfort reading is like surrounding myself with a roomful of well-loved friends who will entertain me, as I know they will bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion. .I’d guess this gives a sense of control over circumstances when I don’t have enough control over an outcome myself.

      When I’m stressed but getting a grip, then I clean madly.

  • My tell: I start to repeat myself, repeatedly!
    I am also a kid lit fan and took a course in college. I plan on re-reading, “Pippi Longstockings”. I used to live near the house where the movie was filmed. Very comforting to just drive by.

  • emd04

    I want to be super-lazy–essentially nap, sit on the couch and read, or just be a hermit.

  • Brenda

    Gretchen- if you haven’t already, when you’re back in the mood for something new, consider adding Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon to your list. He wrote it for his daughter who was too overwhelmed by his usual scary fare. It’s heavy in places but feels like children’s literature to me – good vs. evil, sibling rivalry, etc. I’ve reread it dozens of times since my dad gave it to me as a gift when I was a teenager. (and apologies if in my years of reading this blog I’ve already recommended it and forgot lol)

    • gretchenrubin

      I love Stephen King and I have NEVER heard of that – adding it to my list now! Excellent.

      • Brenda

        Wonderful! That makes me so happy that I mentioned it! Hope you enjoy it – it’s my go-to reread in exactly the type of scenario you described here. Have a great day and thrilled to see the success/great interviews around Happier at Home 🙂

  • Rose

    I’m sorry to hear your stressed on the release of your new book. Is it the stress of waiting for the reviews? – because I’ve heard nothing but positive things about it! I know its easier said, than done, but do try to enjoy this special time. It’s really a moment to celebrate and enjoying the now is such a key theme in Happier at Home.

    Bought the book on release day, and loving it so far. My current “pigeon of discontent” is not having the time to read it this week! haha

    Oh and my stress “tell” is wanting to eat ice cream & chocolate

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s the thing – I don’t feel stressed! I feel perfectly calm and cheerful. But I must be feeling some level of something, because my tells are telling me so.

  • Leah

    I wanted to make some young adult literature recs for you. The singer Dar Williams has two books about a girl named Amalee. I also love Elsewhere and Also Known as Sadzia the Belly Dancer (that is my comfort book).

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent! I love getting reading recommendations.

  • vashelle nino

    It always shows up in my neck/shoulders. Speaking of re-runs…when I’m feeling stressed I like to veg out on the couch and watch re-runs of Saved By the Bell on Netflix 🙂

  • Kate@ Savour Fare

    I have a tendency to rub my chest, cry and also reread. I’d recommend Susan Cooper. I find her more soothing than LOtR.

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE The Dark is Rising and have read it a million times, but wasn’t as crazy about the others. But you know what, I may go re-read them all RIGHT NOW. Just what I’m in the mood for!

      • Kate @ Savour Fare

        I also read cookbooks when I’m stressed. Not to cook from them, but I find a well written cookbook very soothing. I think because food is so strongly associated with family and nostalgia for me.

        • Jenny

          I love to read cookbooks. Just reading about a pot of soup makes me feel relaxed and homey.

    • Lisa Y

      Now that you’ve brought up Susan Cooper, I may have to dig out Over Sea, Under Stone. My favorite of hers!

      My tell is an eyelid tick. It started during grad school when I was constantly stressed about money and it comes back here and there to tell me something is up!

  • Deidra

    Since high school I’ve had a tooth that will throb and have me convinced I have a cavity. But when I go to the dentist it’s perfectly sound. The dentist started noticing I was coming in around finals time. It’s been lovingly nicknamed my “stress tooth” and when it starts hurting I know I’m too worked up.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a real tell!

  • lynnel

    Love to re-read LOTR with a big pot of tea! (Always seems like a kettle singing and some biscuits go well with that series). My tell is a migraine. I might not feel stressed, or even recognize something is going on, but that pretty much always points to the fact there is something…I like your tells better! Hope the meet and great went well (wish I could have come) but as my birthday is next week, I am looking forward to curling up with your new book to celebrate!

  • Aunt Marti

    Oh yeah. When I get stressed, I hum, usually old hymns. When I start humming Christmas carols, you know I’m *really* stressed~

  • acdc

    My tell is frantically unfocused web browsing.

    My comfort food for the mind is looking at photos of the absurdly hilarious Spongebob! Also, reading in a “different language” ala Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver help me get into a better space of mind.

  • Angela

    I tend to reread stuff on a regular basis, but if I start hitting series books that have more than 5 titles, then I know I am in for it. Also, my bed is a perfect emotional barometer for me. I hate an unmade bed. Oh, nightmares about my mom yelling at me are the first tip off though.

  • Jenny

    I start misplacing things when I am over-stressed. Keys, papers, my planner, etc.
    And my comfort is an evening curled up on the couch with an afghan, a bowl of popcorn and a cozy mystery.

  • Pam

    My tell is I clean. I clean with a ruthlessness to declutter.

  • English girl

    I thought this an excellent topic, I have realized this same thought recently, I think I recognise when I feel unrested, like, I will find things to do in more of an aimless way, not like a focused task, but if I do focus on something more I get less stressed. Also, reading is my top hobby, and sometimes find it harder to read if I am stressed, it is one of the best things for me to do though as it takes me ‘out of myself’. I find I rub my eczema more as stress affects it instantly. I find this more in stressful moments though rather than a mood.
    Just gazing at my bookcases is a relaxing thing for me.

  • Mary Witt

    I start micromanaging my kids, especially upon arriving home, when I am feeling stressed about something that is out of my control. It’s as if I find a pocket of something I CAN control. It was very enlightening when I figured it out.

    • mj

      Yes, I micromanage my kids too. It took me a years to recognize what I was doing and to back off and deal with my own crap. I also eat when I’m stressed, really bad habit, again, at least I am aware of it now and try to substitute a different activity. I need my feet rubbed, a lot, when my stress is high. I finally bought a prickly textured ball to be able to “rub” my own feet!

  • Missus Wookie

    I also need more sleep, want to go for long walks on my own and also curl up to reread old favourites. Start craving ‘treat’ foods too and am remarkably good at finding many many things to do rather than my to do list! According to my dh I also get quieter and start being very very polite (that works if I’m angry) the more quiet and polite I am being the angrier/stressed I am. :sigh:

    If you are in the mood for fantasy… have you ever read any of Patricia C Wrede’s books? The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are a favourite here, the Chocolate Pot series is similar and done as letters/diary entries which is an interesting twist on the usual story telling.

    Looking forward to reading the new book – it’s on preorder from

  • Kirsten

    It’s so funny you say this; I have a large vintage children’s book collection. I go straight to it to it when I feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed.

  • Karbogast

    I bake. Specifically my pretty famous cookies. When extremely stressed, I don’t sleep well, regardless of how long I sleep for, and unfortunately that comes out in how I deal with people.

    • Karbogast

      I also, similar to you, tend to re-read the same books (it really is mental comfort food for me) and re-watch movies (specifically children’s movies and comedies).

  • AvidKitLit

    I suspect somebody out there is compiling a bibiography based on this comment thread. Care to share it on a google document so I don’t have to re-do? If not, I’ll work on it next weekend if I can.

  • fireflyeyes

    I also sleep too much, I pull at my hair (not pull it out, but fidget with it and give it little tugs), I invent projects for myself to avoid dealing with what I actually have to do, and I rewatch favorite movies, especially ones for kids – Finding Nemo, Coraline, Wall-E, etc. I think the thing about rewatching or rereading when you’re stressed is that you know the ending. You don’t want invest emotional energy in something new and then find out it has a bad ending or an upsetting plot twist.

    I have to agree that LotR isn’t exactly a children’s book – but who cares, if it’s what you want to read! Also, it’s a book that’s appropriate for children, just not really written for them. The Hobbit is, though! I actually am more likely to re-read the Hobbit when I’m down than LotR. It’s less epic and requires less energy for me.

  • lavacha

    I have the same tells, but not for stress – those are warning sign for depression for me. When I’m rereading David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon after I’ve finished LotR, I’m usually in trouble.
    When stressed, I alternate cleaning bouts with teaching my cats new tricks. My husband pointed that out to me, he said the cats have to “suffer by proxy” (they are not really suffering, they love the attention).

  • Gretchen, from your Happiness books and this website, I have gleaned that you and I are so similar it gets a little weird sometimes! I am a lifetime lover of kidlit, and of my tells is that I find myself needing to re-read the whole Little House series. I still have the paperback set I got for my birthday when I was seven (I had already checked them out of the library and read them a zillion times), and reading them over again is one of the most comforting things I can imagine. I also love to re-read Harriet the Spy — it’s not a cozy book, but it’s one of those books I read as a child and finally felt like someone GOT me, even though I had such a different life than Harriet. And now, it’s a fun book to re-read because of its New York setting, since I live here and have a daughter who will grow up as a Manhattan kid. Other favorites: the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry, and anything by Paula Danziger.

  • Jodi

    Harry Potter books are my go to.