Sweating Under Pressure: What Has Stress Got To Do With It?


You haven’t gotten up from your desk in hours, yet your shirt is as soaked as if you’ve run a marathon. While all you’ve done is think and type, you can’t stop wiping moisture from your forehead! 

What’s wrong with this picture? 

Sometimes, our racing thoughts are all it takes to make us break out in a sweat. Maybe you just realized you forgot to reply to a client, or worse still, you overheard colleagues discussing how “you’d be the perfect person to give that public speech”… 

Whatever the specific trigger, you know that being under pressure turns you into a sweaty, emotional mess. And there’s nothing you can do about it—or is there? 

If you’d like to “dry up” your reaction to stressful situations, it helps to understand why you sweat when you’re anxious in the first place.  

This article will dive into a few scientific theories and arm you with three tips to help you manage your watery response!

A Closer Look At Sweating 

Normal sweating is the body’s way of regulating your temperature. When we’re warm, sweat helps us cool down by evaporating, and it also hydrates our skin while maintaining the delicate balance of fluids and electrolytes that we need to function properly.  

It can even help us grip things properly by dampening our palms, an evolutionary response that enables us to react defensively to environmental threats. 

But if you find yourself sweating when things get tense or emotional, you’ll already know that different kinds of sweat aren’t all the same, are they? Let’s take a closer look. 

Not All Sweat Is Created Equal 

It’s important to differentiate between sweating from heat or hard physical work (regular sweat) and our body’s drippy, damp reaction to being under pressure. 

Stress sweat is triggered by emotions we experience, such as excitement, anxiety, anger, or stress.  

You may notice it all over, but it’s especially apparent under your arms, on your face, on the soles of your feet, and (you guessed it) on the palms of your hands.  

Stress sweat is a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response to perceived threats, such as: 

  • Fear at the idea of public speaking 
  • Anxiety about upsetting your client 
  • Anger at arguing with a colleague, or 
  • Stress about forgetting an important event. 

Like other types of stress responses, such as bodily tension and speaking too fast, it’s caused by a surge of “react now!” hormones such as adrenaline, which kick your sweat glands into high gear. 

These evolutionary instincts are coded deeply into your genetic makeup. Unfortunately, your sympathetic nervous system operates outside of your conscious control, so you can’t overrule them by rationalizing them away. 

Why Do I Sweat When I’m Anxious? 

There are a few theories about exactly how stress and sweat are linked, three of which are particularly interesting. 

To Defend Us Against Predators 

This theory suggests that because sweat makes our skin more moist and slippery, it helps us physically escape the grip of predators.  

Sweat prevented enemies from getting a good, firm grip on us, and because we lived to see another day, we passed on that reaction to our offspring. 

It’s A Warning To Others 

Another theory is based on the idea that stress and regular sweat have different scents, and the former is a warning signal to prime others around us for danger. The US Military tested this hypothesis by measuring brain activity as volunteers smelled both types—stress sweat from first-time skydivers and regular sweat from runners on a treadmill.  

As you might have guessed, only panic-induced stress sweat caused unusual activity in the volunteers’ brains. More specifically, it lit up areas that handle emotional and social signals and those linked to alertness. 

It Helps Us Communicate Emotions 

Rather like the last theory, it is also suggested that emotion-induced sweat has a distinct scent that can communicate our feelings to others.  

Psychologists in the Netherlands investigated this by comparing volunteers’ reactions who smelled both fear-derived sweat samples (from participants watching scary movies) and sweat samples from participants who watched disgusting footage (from MTV’s Jackass).  

It emerged that participants who smelled fear-derived sweat showed fearful facial expressions, too. And when they were exposed to disgust-based sweat samples, their faces mirrored that emotion too. From this, researchers concluded that sweat could effectively communicate our emotions in an interpersonal context. It’s interesting to know that these facial expressions were triggered whether the participants considered the samples pleasant-smelling or not, and that other experiments have yielded similar results. 

Whichever theory you find most convincing, it’s clear that sweat and stress go hand in hand. Because it can happen to the best of us, I created the Sweating Stress Coaching Card. 

Now here’s how to manage it better! 

3 Tips To Manage Stress-Induced Sweating 

Maybe you can’t override your sweat response with reason, but you’re not completely powerless when the dampness kicks in. Try these three tips: 

1. Be Prepared 

Does the first sign of stress-induced dampness make you even more alarmed and sweaty? If so, you’ll know that anxiety and sweating can be mutually reinforcing—it’s like a vicious cycle.  

You can break this cycle and free yourself by making the ‘sweating part’ less stressful

  • Wear colors that hide sweat stains, such as black and white 
  • Choose breathable fabrics that wick away moisture from your skin, such as silk, cotton, and other natural materials.
  • Use your antiperspirant/deodorant twice daily, both in the morning and before you head to sleep. 
  • Let evaporation work for you—try to notice when your stress reactions are causing you to warm up and sweat more, e.g., balling your hands into fists or putting them in your pockets. Open up your hands and expose them to the air instead to dry them naturally. 
  • Pack an extra shirt to wear if you’re worried about becoming too sweaty. 

2. Debrief With A Friend 

Share your emotions with a family member or friend who will make you feel better. Talking about anxiety, anger, or panic can be extremely helpful, especially if that person is emotionally similar to you. 

This tip is easy: stop for a chat or phone a friend! 

3. Think cold thoughts! 

Sometimes the thought of being cold is enough to cool you down! When I recently found myself sweating from tension, I used the memory of diving into an unheated swimming pool. As I recalled the icy shock of cold water on my skin, getting goosebumps, and shivering, I began to feel less overheated and started feeling a little better.

What’s a cold, freezing memory that you could use? 

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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