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.
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!
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).