Stress is a weasel word — and maybe that’s good!

May 15, 2012

In The Language of Emotions, I talk about stress as a “weasel* word,” or a word that people use to hide emotional awareness from themselves. In one of the final chapters in my book, Stress and Resistance: Understanding Emotional Physics, we look at stress after we’ve learned about each of the emotions in depth — and we identify stress very clearly as an emotional reaction.

The Weasel Anti-Defamation League has approved this post. See the legal disclaimer below.

However, since we’ve all be trained to talk about stress as if it is a thing that happens to us (and over which we have no control), we tend to lose our skills and our focus when stressful situations arise. “Help! Stress is happening! It’s an overwhelming force over which I have no control! I’m powerless!!” We’ve learned to weasel away from the truth of what’s happening, and in so doing, we’ve lost our emotional awareness in the area of stress.

But if you look carefully at stress, you’ll see that it’s clearly an emotional reaction to external events or internal states. The sense of tension, the rise in cortisol and adrenaline, the tightening of the body, the rise in heart rate … these are all activations that occur in fear and anxiety (and often anger) responses.

Luckily, you have skills in each of these emotional areas; therefore, you can work with your stress responses in the exact same ways that you work with any other emotions: You figure out why you’ve become activated, you listen to each of the emotions you feel, and you  perform the actions those emotions require and use your emotional mindfulness skills to return yourself to equilibrium. Bing!

When you’ve got emotional skills, you don’t need to use weasel words. They can reduce your emotional vocabulary and your emotional awareness. For instance, if you say that you’re fine, okay, or good, you can mean just about anything. Another wonderfully weaselly word is emotional. “Let’s not be emotional!” “We can’t talk if you’re going to be emotional.” “I’m sorry I was emotional yesterday.” What in the world? Which emotion are we talking about here? What’s going on?

If you don’t know which emotions you’re feeling, it’s hard to do anything useful about them. Weaseling away from emotions seems to be a full-time job for many of us — but it’s not a good-paying job in terms of emotional skills and awareness!

However, we can use weasel words to our advantage! As empaths, we can use weasel words strategically to help people gain a better understanding of their own emotional lives. If precise emotion words are so threatening to people that they use masking language in ingeniously twisted ways, then let’s perform a kind of empathic aikido and utilize those same words in service to emotional awareness!

In my online course Emotional Flow (and on our Facebook page), I gathered a list of excellent weasel words that we can use empathically. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this list!

Cue the video!

Here is the free Emotional Vocabulary List PDF I mention in the video:

Your Emotional Vocabulary List

Notice that in each emotion area, the Emotional Vocabulary List offers vocabulary words for “soft” versions of each emotion. You can use these words to gently question people about their emotional states.

For instance, if people are clearly angry but don’t have a good connection to the gifts of anger, you can ask if they feel peeved, annoyed, or displeased — and they may be able to connect more honestly to their anger, which tells them that their voice, standpoint, or sense of self has been devalued.

Or if people are afraid but unconnected to the gifts of fear, you can ask them if they feel cautious, curious, or uneasy — and they may be able to connect to their fear-based instincts and intuition and understand what form of change, novelty, or possible hazard they have just experienced.

You can also pick and choose from our wonderful new list of Weasel Words below. Specifically, enjoy the Wonderweasels: stressed, bad, or unhappy, and the Lesser Weasels: upset and hurt (just be careful with the Lesser Weasels, because both suggest emotional sensitivity — and a lot of people like to pretend that they’re emotionally impervious).

The Fabulous Empaths’ List of Weasel Words!

If people don’t seem able to identify or own up to their emotions, you can use lite vocabulary words or weasel words to gently bring attention to what is actually occurring.

Weasel Warning: Don’t be annoying, naming people’s emotions for them and leading them into the awareness you want. Instead, have fun and know that for some people, even the mention of the real names for emotions can be triggering. But that doesn’t mean that their emotions have nothing to say.

On the contrary, people who don’t yet have a working emotional vocabulary also don’t have access to the amazing, life-changing wisdom inside their emotions. If you can gently bring awareness to the actual emotion that is occurring, you’ll support people in beginning to connect to their own innate wisdom. And you’ll also support truthfulness in your relationships.

In this list, I move from lite emotion words that are less weaselly, into Weasels, and finally to the Wonderweasels and Lesser Weasels if they’re appropriate to each emotion.


Peeved, Annoyed, Frustrated, Displeased, Affronted, Vexed, Tense, Agitated, Disappointed, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt, Whatever.


Detached, Disinterested, Indifferent, Unhappy, Whatever.

Shame & Guilt

Awkward, Flustered, Exposed, Demeaned, Humiliated, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt.


Low, Down, Disappointed, Discouraged, Blue, Bummed, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt, Whatever.


Low, Lost, Down in the Dumps, Blue, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt, Whatever.


Disinterested, Detached, Low, Blue, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt, Whatever.


What Do You Sense?, Cautious, Curious, Uneasy, Jumpy, Unsettled, Off, Stressed, Upset.


Concerned, Tense, Agitated, Unsettled, Off, Bothered, Jumpy, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset.


Sensing Disloyalty, Insecure, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt.


Sensing Unfairness, Insecure, Stressed, Bad, Unhappy, Upset, Hurt.


Satisfied, Pleased, Proud, Happy, Good.

(I’m not including Happiness and Joy, because people are fine saying those names outright).

If you think of other words, add them below!

In Wonderweaselly Service,

*Legal disclaimer: In using the word weasel to denote a sly unwillingness to be forthright, I do not intend to denigrate any actual weasels, living or dead. Weasels themselves are wonderful animals with complex social lives; weasels are upstanding and valuable members of the community (henhouses notwithstanding).


Janice May 15, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Thanks, Karla! I had a chance Sunday and today to really use some weaselwords~ even the Lesser Weasels:-). They really help when the other person is obviously in some emotional distress, but doesn’t have the skills to work with the mood state emotion. It is hard to watch someone drown in sadness. grief, etc, and have their primary means of dealing with the emotion be distraction. I’m giving it time and letting them know I am there if they want to talk.
How about “In a funk” for another weasel (they multiply like rabbits, the darn things:-)))).

Karla May 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Janice, thanks for working with emotions and empathy in whatever way you can. Your people are lucky to have you! Thank you for bringing empathy into a waiting world!

I think I’ve got an idea for a new musical: Weasel Words in Funky Town!

Kaitlyn May 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Brilliant! I love it. Especially the alliterative way it has weaselled into my head.

Karla May 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Weasels do that! I mean that in a non-defamatory way, of course.

Michael E.Stumpf June 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Karla would You consider learning the language of emotion a type of bilingualism or is that stretching?

Karla June 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Hi Michael! That’s a good question. I have to think about it.

In terms of actual languages with grammar and sentence structure, etc, the language of emotions is not a language. But if you don’t understand emotions and nuance and subtext and motivation, you won’t really understand spoken or written language very well. So the language of emotions is necessary for the understanding of language in general.

Maybe it’s a nonverbal para-language, or a proto-language? Or a language support structure? Good question!

Michael E.Stumpf June 27, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Thanks for the quick reply.I guess for myself it’s like learning anything new or in a new way it’s an opening to Life in a fearless way & not closing my Heart/Mind.

A message to followers of my earlier work | Missing the Solstice July 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm

[…] and people can easily grow up learning about everything BUT their emotions, as the presence of the Wonder Weasels and Lesser Weasels […]

Ariane Zurcher October 14, 2012 at 5:20 am

Love this and have just printed out for further study!

Karla October 14, 2012 at 10:37 am

Weasel words are magically delicious!

Martha Cravens, PhD June 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

I love your WW’s! Some additional ones I have worked with include:

– grumpy
– wonky
– bummed out

These WWs feel like warm security blankets, gently covering up the real emotion lying underneath! What an invitation for loving exploration.

Karla June 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Martha — wonky! Crabby!

I also like perturbed. It sounds so intellectual!

Weasel words are delightful.

Kathleen September 3, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Weasel Words=such a good idea to have these in your toolkit for when
there is an “elephant” in the room and when I have been afraid to say “I see/feel something here.” It is an invitation which can be welcomed or dismissed. Either way, you have noticed and spoken up.

Karla September 3, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Kathleen: Exactly!

Denise June 25, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Hi Karla,

I wonder how much we use weasel words instead of naming the actual emotion because there is a negative connotation associated with it. For example, when I look up anger in the dictionary, the first definition of anger is:
“a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong”

Who wants to name anger if it means that you are belligerent or hostile? Even mad, which you have listed as mood state anger, has a meaning of being mentally unstable. Interesting how anger is perceived to destabilize us.

I have two weasel words to add to the list.

Overwhelm can sometimes point to an intensity of an unnamed emotion and the inability to work with them, but I find more often that it’s being used in place of fear, anxiety and shame, especially as they come up together. Stuck is similar, but I see it most when people are avoiding grieving because they have shame and anxiety about how others will perceive the grieving.

My observations are not all inclusive, just some of what I’ve noticed when others, and even I, use the words.

Karla June 26, 2014 at 9:19 am

Hello Denise — yes, most emotions are seen as signs of a character flaw or something. The idea that emotions are necessary aspects of cognition and motivation is catching on, but not very quickly. There are centuries of hatred and distrust of emotion to work through first!

I think that’s why weasel words can be so important. We’ve been taught to treat emotions as problems in and of themselves, and I notice that if I say the name of an emotion outright to many people, they may feel offended, ashamed, or as if they’re not managing themselves properly. It can be quite a minefield, and sort of an emotion pileup. So I tend to use weasels around people I don’t know well until I figure out which emotions they can work with, which ones they ignore, and which ones they abhor!

I like overwhelm and stuck — though I’d put them in the Lesser Weasels category, I think, because they suggest that people don’t have their act together. I think that if someone said to me when I was trying to hold things together, “You look overwhelmed,” I might crumble a bit. But if I was in a safe place and really letting go, and someone asked “Do you feel overwhelmed?” it might be really helpful. Same for stuck, especially in regard to the shame you’ve identified. I can imagine people thinking (or saying), “I’m not stuck; I’ve got everything handled, yeesh! Why did she say that?”

Isn’t it fun to think about weasel words?

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