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

Stress: What is it really?

In The Language of Emotions, I talk about stress as a “weasel* word,” which is a word that people can 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 been 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 realize that it’s clearly an emotional reaction. 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 in anger) responses.

Luckily, you can develop skills with each of these emotions. You can learn how to work with your stress responses in the exact same ways that you can learn to work with any other emotions: You can figure out why you’ve become activated, you can listen to each of your emotions, and you can perform the actions those emotions require.

You can also use Empathic Mindfulness practices such as Grounding and Rejuvenation to return yourself to equilibrium.

This may seem to be a complex process, but developing emotional skills is thousands of times easier than being overwhelmed by emotions you can’t identify, understand, or manage!

And when you have emotional skills, you won’t need to use weasel words. This is important, because a poor emotional vocabulary can actually reduce your emotional awareness! For instance, if you say that you’re fine, okay, or good, you can mean just about anything; these words can be lazy and inexact, and they may disconnect you from your true emotions.

Another way to reduce your emotional awareness is to use the word emotional as a catch-all, as if emotions are all alike. “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? There are seventeen of them; so which ones are you feeling? Use your words!

If you don’t know which emotions you’re feeling, it’s hard to do anything useful with 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!

I developed this Emotional Vocabulary List with the help of empathic friends here and on Facebook so that we could all develop robust emotional vocabularies and develop stronger emotional awareness. It’s free!

Your Emotional Vocabulary List

Being able to identify and name your emotions increases your emotional awareness and skills. However, you may come across people who don’t like to hear the real names for emotions, and who use weasel words like stressed to describe most of their emotions.

Using Weasel Words to Your Advantage

The fact that many people don’t have working emotional vocabularies doesn’t have to slow down your emotional awareness (or theirs!). In many cases, you can use weasel words strategically to help people gain a better understanding of their own emotional lives.

For instance, if precise emotion words are unknown to people (or threatening), you can perform a kind of empathic aikido and use weasel words in service to emotional awareness.

Notice that in each emotional area, the Emotional Vocabulary List above 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 them if they feel peeved, annoyed, or displeased — and they may be able to connect more honestly to their anger, which tells them that their position 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 so that they can understand what kinds of change, novelty, or possible hazards they have just experienced.

You can also pick and choose from our wonderful list of Weasel Words that people in my online course Emotional Flow (and on my Facebook page) created to support emotional awareness in people who don’t have the vocabulary they need to express themselves. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this list!

Specifically, enjoy the Wonder Weasels: bad, stressed, or unhappy, and the Lesser Weasels: upset and hurt (just be careful with the Lesser Weasels, because both of these words suggest emotional sensitivity — and a lot of people like to pretend that they’re emotionally impervious).

We’ve also added a teen weasel word: whatever, which seems to work for any emotion or situation!

The Fabulous Empaths’ List of Weasel Words!

If people don’t seem able to identify or own up to their emotions, you can use soft vocabulary words from your free Emotional Vocabulary List, or you can use weasel words to gently bring attention to what’s actually occurring.

Weasel Warning: Don’t be annoying, naming people’s emotions for them and leading them into the awareness you want. Instead, be kind and know that for some people, even the mention of the real names for emotions can be uncomfortable. 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 wisdom. And you’ll also support honesty and emotional awareness in your relationships.

In this list, we move from soft emotion words that are less weaselly, and then into the Wonder Weasels and Lesser Weasels if they’re appropriate to each emotion.


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

Apathy & Boredom

Detached, Disinterested, Indifferent, Whatever, Unhappy.

Shame & Guilt

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Bothered, Cautious, Nervous, Uneasy, Stressed, Upset.


Fine, Good, Happy, Pleased, Proud, Satisfied.

I’m not including Happiness or Joy in our Weasel Words list, because most people are fine saying those words outright.

As you go through this list, however, notice how just five weaselly words can stand in for pretty much every emotion except the three happiness-based emotions (Happiness, Contentment, and Joy). Wow, that’s stunning, but it really explains the problems many of us have had in developing emotional awareness and emotional skills!

It’s very hard to become fully aware of something if you have no words for it, and no way to describe it. As you develop a stronger emotional vocabulary for yourself, listen for the ways that people hide emotional awareness from themselves. It happens all the time!

Stress is certainly a weasel word, but it can also be a way to help people begin to identify emotions and speak about them with clarity. Stress is a weasel word — but if you know how to use it to support emotional awareness, then maybe that’s good!

*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).

6 Responses

  1. June Stone
    | Reply

    Hello Karla,greetings from South Africa…I have loved your work for a couple of years now and your book The Language of Emotions was a major turn around in offering me a new understanding in the importance of our emotions and the messages they provide…so thank you.I am so much more enlightened and empowered, coming from a background of emotional neglect and repressed emotions from early childhood sexual violations…my focus now is always to encourage my clients to learn more about their emotional spectrum as opposed to ‘thinking’ their way through their healing. Sadly, the business world is slow in providing the funds for training/enlightment around this very important subject by some of us passionate “lay people” that do not have psychology degrees. do you have training interventions that focus on taking the ‘basics’ of emotional intelligence into the workplace. I’m sure if we had more of these trainings in the workplace for the ordinary staff we would have less mental health issues needing care and attention. So much global attention is given to mental health issues with little suggestion about one of the most obvious reasons for this and is what you write about…lack of emotional awareness. Thank you for this insight about how easily we throw the word ‘stress’ into our daily vocabulary with little thought/introspection about naming our feelings rather.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello June, and welcome!

      Thank you for the work you’re doing, and yes! I do have a workplace approach called Emotional Dynamics at Work, and an entire chapter devoted to the workplace in The Art of Empathy.

      If you’d like to read about my applied work, our sister site has descriptions of it. This post: What is Emotion Work? gives a good overview.

      You’re absolutely right that a lack of emotional awareness is at the root of an amazing number of issues. Thank you for understanding and for bringing more emotional awareness to the world!

  2. Maura
    | Reply

    I’ve taken your book , ‘the language of emotions’ out of the library three times, so I think it’s time I purchase it! Thank you for all that you are doing and the, newly (to me) discovered, vocabulary list!!!
    Since finding you site, I am fascinated by the empathy angle, too. (may take awhile as I also have approach/ avoid going on with even leaning about this stuff : )
    A question for you re: Pride. I see I’ve ended relationships and actually ‘blamed’ my divorce on my husband’s ‘pride’, (although mine also showed much later when he was ready to reconsider – 9 months later). I’ve not found reference to it in your index. I know it must/is a cover for deeper emotions, yet I’m a novice at this. Any suggestions?
    Thank You!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Maura, and welcome!

      In my model, pride is in the area of contentment. However, when some people talk about pride, they are actually talking about self-esteem.

      What aspects or behaviors are you referring to when you think of pride?


  3. Ripley
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I’m wondering how feeling vulnerable can be helpful. I did not find anything about this in your book or on your website. I sense that some of my other emotions like anger and fear stem from feeling vulnerable. How do I address and understand my feelings of vulnerability?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello and thanks for the good question. When i talk about anger these days, I see it as the strength we need to remain vulnerable in a conflict, or in relation to setting a boundary.

      Many people use the power in anger in abusive ways, but that subverts the purpose of anger and creates more trouble. Vulnerability is a fact, and anger helps us navigate it in healing ways (if we know how to work with anger, that is).

      And fear reminds us that we are always vulnerable in some way, though we’re not always in danger (there’s a difference between vulnerability and endangerment). It helps us maintain our instincts and intuition about the present moment. If something is dangerous, panic steps forward to help us survive.

      All of our emotions help us survive and thrive, and most of them are aware of our vulnerability in this often-dangerous world. Thank you, emotions! Thank you, anger and fear!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *