The difference between stress, anxiety, and overwhelm (and why it matters)

Our bodies do a really good job of letting us know when something is off. Perhaps our heart may start beating fast, we might find it hard to focus, and our muscles may tighten. Are we experiencing stress? Anxiety? Overwhelm? Does it matter? 

Social psychologist, Dr. Brene Brown, explores the importance of accurately naming emotions and experiences in her recent book Atlas of the Heart. The book is structured in a true Atlas fashion, exploring 87 different emotions we experience as a human. 

I was initially struck by the fact that we can experience 87 emotions. Brown’s research says most people can only recognize if they’re happy, sad, or angry. However, expanding our vocabulary and understanding the nuance between emotions forms the building blocks to cultivating meaningful connections within ourselves and with others. 

Brown notably explores the key differences between stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. While at a first glance, it seems like these generally mean the same thing, understanding the nuance between each informs how we respond to it, communicate it, and ask for help when experiencing it. 

Stress focuses on pressures that can be hard to cope with (such as a work deadline). When we are stressed, we usually know what we’re stressed about, and the symptoms of stress typically disappear after the stressful situation is over. In some instances, stress can be a good thing. For instance, the stress that may come prior to giving a public speech can actually help sharpen focus and memory and improve stage presence.  

Anxiety is defined by persistent and excessive worries that don't go away even in the absence of a stressor. To continue the example, anxiety may be feeling the symptoms of acute stress that you felt prior to giving a speech - even if you had already completed giving the speech. Depending on the intensity, you can manage anxiety with different therapeutic techniques (such as cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness), explore with a doctor if medication is right for you, and seek out professional therapy. 

Overwhelm relates to an intensity of stress in which we’re incapable of taking action. We’re so consumed by the pressures on us that we can’t do anything about it. Brown mentions on her podcast, Unlocking Us, “The big difference is we can function in stress, we really can’t function in overwhelm.” In the public speaking example, overwhelm could look like completely freezing on stage and being unable to speak. In some instances, it can manifest as a panic attack or shutting down (if you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend learning about Polyvagal theory)! 


So why does this language matter? By getting specific about how we are feeling - to ourselves and to others, we are able to better connect and seek the help we need to respond to our bodies. Language is the portal to our souls and the key to connecting with others. 

If you enjoyed this topic, you can join a free introductory session in which we dive deeper into the research and the power of naming emotions. Plus, when you sign up - you’ll get access to a tool we created that can help you get specific with your own emotions! Sign up here

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