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What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed

Discover exercises to relieve the stress of feeling overwhelmed.



Have you ever had an experience that caused you such intense feelings you could hardly contain yourself–like you were overflowing with emotions? That is the feeling of being overwhelmed. This happens when something causes an intense reaction in you, either emotionally or physically. You may react with happiness, tears, anger or a combination of all three depending on the situation.

Overwhelm can also be a feeling that builds over time, with one small event being the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. This can happen when you ignore small things that bother you which eventually end up turning into a mountain of resentment. You might become overwhelmed when all the things you ignored come crashing down on you all at once.

Negative overwhelm can also be defined as psychological stress which is “when an individual perceives that environmental demands tax or exceed his or her adaptive capacity” (Cohen et al., 2007). When talking about the negative experience of being stressed, psychological and even physical symptoms may emerge (Kalliath et al., 2004).

Psychological stress symptoms:

  • Unable to feel reasonably happy

  • Lose sleep over worry

  • Constantly under strain

  • Feeling unhappy and depressed

  • Unable to concentrate

  • Unable to enjoy normal activities

  • Losing confidence in own self

  • Unable to overcome difficulties

  • Unable to face up to problems

  • Not capable of making decisions

  • Unable to play a useful part in things

  • Thinking of own self as worthless ​

Almost anything may cause a person to become overwhelmed–it really depends on the individual. There are common themes of situations or experiences that can cause someone to feel overwhelmed. These are usually things that cause emotional discomfort and extra stress, especially once issues start piling up. However, the opposite can be true as well. If positive experiences start building up, you can be overwhelmed by happiness and gratitude.

Causes of overwhelm:

  • Finances

  • Health

  • Parenting

  • Marriage

  • Career

Overcoming Feelings of Overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed can happen to anyone. However, this feeling can harm our well-being when it is constant. It may cause you to feel out of control of your own life. If this sounds like something you are familiar with, try the following steps to recognize where you are feeling overwhelmed and begin to alleviate some of that stress.

  1. Evaluate the areas of your life where you feel overwhelmed. There may be many areas of your life contributing to feelings of stress. Drilling down and figuring out what specific dimensions of your life are causing you the most stress is the first step in modifying those areas to give you some relief. Some examples may include career, parenting, marriage, finances, friendships, family relationships, etc.

  2. Identify the cause of overwhelm you can most easily modify. It might not be easy to change your job right away, but you might be able to make changes to other areas of your life more immediately. Tackling overwhelming household responsibilities or spending habits are two examples of areas where you have the control to start making changes to relieve feelings of stress.

  3. Make a plan to modify your behavior. If you are feeling overwhelmed with household responsibilities, creating a weekly “tidy-up” schedule can help you complete a little work each day to keep it from piling up. If you are feeling overwhelmed by finances, developing–and sticking to–a budget can help alleviate some financial stress.

  4. Stick to your plan. While it might seem like more work at first, structuring the areas of your life where you feel most overwhelmed can help you gain a better sense of control. Try to create a weekly plan, follow through with the plan, and also allow yourself grace if you aren’t perfect right away.

In Sum

Feeling overwhelmed happens when you are overcome with intense emotions. These can be negative, such as stress and anger, or positive, such as joy and gratitude. Constantly feeling overwhelmed can have negative consequences like feeling unhappy, losing confidence in yourself, and having difficulty making decisions. In the moment of feeling overwhelmed, stopping to take three deep breaths can help alleviate immediate feelings of panic. Building resilience within yourself may be helpful to combat feeling overwhelmed. ​

References

  • Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Miller, G. (2007, October 10). Psychological stress and disease. JAMA. Retrieved October 29, 2022.

  • Kalliath, T. J., O'Driscoll, M. P., & Brough, P. (2004). A confirmatory factor analysis of the general health questionnaire-12. Stress and Health, 20(1), 11–20.

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