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Stress and Overwhelm: What’s the Difference?

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

For those of you that have worked in a restaurant before, you may resonate with this blog. It’ll paint a picture for you to get a good understanding of what it means to experience the emotions of stress and overwhelm, not only in the restaurant industry but in normal everyday life as well.

What Is Stress?

We feel “stressed” when we “evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability and feeling overloaded.” (Brown, p. 5).

What Is Overwhelm?

We feel “overwhelmed” when we experience an “extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines overwhelmed as “completely overcome or overpowered by thought or feeling” (Brown, p. 7).

Often, when we are overwhelmed, we don’t process other information that we are presented with accurately and that leads to poor decision making. With overwhelm, there is a high level of feeling, a moderate level of how much we are paying attention to what we are experiencing, and a low level of actually being able to understand what these feelings mean.

Back to the restaurant example – the restaurant is packed, loud, waiters and waitresses are scurrying around trying to keep their heads above water, customers are pissed and food is getting cold. As a server, there are always a million things to do and the mind runs quickly as it aims to get ahead of the curve.

Brené Brown explains two different types of states in the restaurant industry — in the weeds and blown. Being in the weeds means the person is hopelessly behind — they become behind in their own capacity to catch up and get ahold of things. They’re struggling and their situation becomes difficult. Fellow co-workers might try to help or ask what you need when you are in this state.

Blown is completely different, Brown explains. The kitchen might get quiet, no one asks what you need and you’re given a short period of time (perhaps 10 minutes) to get your act together and breathe. You might step outside, go to the bathroom, splash some water on your face — whatever you need. During this time the rest of the wait staff might take over for you.

Both stress and overwhelm can cause both physiological (body) and psychological (mind and emotion) reactions. Our emotional reaction is mostly tied to our own “cognitive assessment” of whether we can cope or handle the situation.

“Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown.”

We all know the feeling that washes over us and it leaves us completely blank with what to do next. People might ask you how they can help or what they can do but you don’t even know how to direct them or what to tell them. Overwhelm reminds me of quicksand — or as if “our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well” (Brown, p. 7).

Hopefully, in learning about and understanding the difference between stress and overwhelm, which typically go hand and hand, you are able to better understand, and eventually cope, with what you are dealing with or what is at hand. Although you may think things are unfolding quicker than your psyche or nervous system can handle, remember to take a minute to slow down and that you can do hard things! 

If you would like to talk to someone about managing stress and feeling overwhelmed, therapy can help. Explore our counseling services online, and contact Symmetry Counseling today to connect with a Chicago therapist for support.


Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. Random House Publishing.  

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