What Causes the Feeling of Overwhelm?

You most likely will feel overwhelmed at some point in your life. It’s human. The feeling of overwhelm most commonly entails being overcome with emotion as the result of something (work, stress, events) that feels too challenging to handle. When we feel overwhelmed, it can be difficult to think and act rationally, and it can often feel all-consuming. Needless to say, feeling overwhelmed is uncomfortable and causes physical and mental effects that span every aspect of life. When we understand how our brains work, we can fully grasp the concept of emotional overwhelm to move past it.

What are feelings of overwhelm?

Emotional overwhelm is much more than being stressed out. By definition, it means to be wholly submerged by your thoughts and emotions about past, current, or perceived future problems to the point where you feel frozen or lack productivity. Over time, being chronically overwhelmed can take a toll on your mental and physical health, leading to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Reasons why you may feel overwhelmed

If you feel overwhelmed, it may be challenging to pinpoint precisely why. Often many stressors contribute to emotional overwhelm. Sometimes, this overload results from a single big stressor, such as a traumatic accident or losing a loved one. Other times, it can be the result of a series of challenges. For example, missing the bus in the morning might not seem like a big deal, but this can set off a chain of thoughts and emotions that trigger overwhelming feelings.

Some emotions may overwhelm you more easily than others. When we deal with conflicting feelings at once, emotional overwhelm is more likely to happen. In fact, some health conditions such as anxiety and depression have emotional overwhelm as a symptom. Common triggers that can lead to emotional overwhelm include:

  • Relationships
  • Physical or mental health illness
  • Demanding jobs
  • Financial distress
  • Significant life changes
  • Time constraints
  • Death of a loved one
  • Personal trauma
  • Family responsibilities
  • Stressful environments
  • Pressure to achieve more

The mental impact of feeling constantly overwhelmed can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating, a racing mind, or anxiety. Over time, overcoming too many demands can lead to cognitive fatigue, impacting our ability to think rationally.

What overwhelm looks like

Emotional overwhelm can take on many shapes and sizes. It may look like:

  • Overreacting to seemingly insignificant situations, like not being able to find your keys
  • Feeling physically ill or fatigued for no reason
  • Having difficulty focusing or completing simple tasks
  • Withdrawing from friends and family for no reason
  • Letting your emotions control your perception of the world

How to stop feeling overwhelmed

No matter the reason, feeling overwhelmed is likely uncomfortable. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, learning different tools to address your emotions and leverage the way your brain works can help. Here are some strategies to prevent and stop feeling overwhelmed.

1. Map out your habits

While you might not be able to pinpoint the cause of being overwhelmed, ask yourself: what’s causing you to feel stressed? It can help you understand and work with your overwhelming feelings. As you try to map out your habits, remember to tap into curiosity to stay present in a nonjudgmental way. One way to do this is using the habit mapper by Dr. Brewer:

Start by identifying the trigger, the cue that starts the habit. This can be something you see, a place you visit, or an internal sensation, thought, or emotion – please note this is the least important part of the habit loop, don’t worry if you can’t identify the trigger.

Recognize how that causes a behavior, the habit itself. This can be a physical behavior like biting your nails or a mental behavior like over-thinking or excessive worrying.

At last, explore the result, the way you feel after the behavior. This can feel good in the short term but doesn’t stop the loop. For example, we may feel like worrying helps fix a problem, but often worry depletes our resources and problem solving abilities. And it feels horrible.

By breaking out your habits into these three components, you can recognize how the habit starts and how unhelpful it is for you. When we feel the results of the habit loop by asking ourselves “what am I getting from this?”, we can break the loop and step out of unhelpful habits.

2. Treat emotional overwhelm with acceptance

Fighting all-consuming emotions like emotional overwhelm don’t help much in a particularly anxious moment. When we accept the felt sensations of anxiety as part of our present moment experience and how quickly it can change, acceptance becomes a tool to work through these uncomfortable feelings. Using awareness and acknowledgment of our experiences and emotions can disarm feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. This non-judgmental awareness might help reduce your stress’s feelings of shame or guilt often associated with anxiety.

Next time you feel overwhelmed, take a moment and pause. Instead of letting thoughts intensify and cause anxiety, try to let them be using RAIN:

Recognize what’s happening at the moment

Accept those feelings/sensations to be there

Investigate these bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts

Note what is happening from moment to moment

This short meditation helps you practice non-judgmental awareness. With time, you’ll be able to stay present instead of getting lost in self-judgmental thoughts that can make you feel overwhelmed.

3. Change your thought process

Without information, our brains find it too easy to focus on negative thoughts that can cause distress. To change the thought process, we have to break these habitual ruminations by asking ourselves if our thought process is reasonable or helpful in the first place.

Most likely, we’ll find it’s quite the opposite.

Next time you experience feelings of uncertainty, break the cycle by mapping out habit loops around uncertainty, feeling into the results of the habit loop, then using a practice like RAIN.

Over time, practicing this over and over again will rewire our brains to let go of old behaviors and free up space for new and healthier habits.

4. Focus on grounding techniques

Studies suggest deep breathing can help reduce stress and improve your overall mood. Some grounding techniques can help ease overwhelming feelings. Deep breathing exercises can trigger the body’s relaxation response and help calm your body’s response to anxiety. Dr. Brewer suggests focusing on simple grounding techniques like:

  • Feel the physical sensations of your feet and the ground beneath them
  • Noticing bodily sensations
  • Anchoring in the present moment
  • Listening to your surroundings
  • Bringing attention to your breath

5. Be in the (present) moment

Overwhelming feelings of anxiety are usually either about the past or the future. If your thinking is focused on what the future holds or what the past could have been, you’re more susceptible to becoming overwhelmed. Explore how it feels to be grounded in the present moment instead of being caught up in unhelpful thoughts of the past or future.

Next time you begin to worry about something that’s out of your control, try exploring how it feels to reconnect with any of your five senses to ground you in the present moment. Awareness of the present can help ground you and find balance again.

How Unwinding Anxiety can help when feeling overwhelmed

Unwinding Anxiety is a step-by-step program clinically validated to teach you how your brain works to help reduce anxiety and feelings of overwhelm.

Throughout the program, you’ll explore different models that will help you change your relationship with anxiety. Recognizing unhelpful habits caused by overwhelming feelings can help you break anxiety loops so you can work on having a calmer frame of mind in the future.

Data from the Unwinding Anxiety program shows a 67% reduction in anxiety after three months in a study of anxious physicians. Each day, the program consists of short videos and audio-guided sessions that break down anxiety and how our brains work. You’ll also receive practical resources and exercises, including:

  • Mindfulness training sessions to understand how the mind works
  • Stress mapping tools to identify habits
  • Customizable exercises to help you control anxiety

While there is no way to predict what life has in store at any given moment, there are ways to build resilience and be better prepared to take on life’s many challenges.

You can find relief from overwhelming feelings with consistent practice, one day at a time.

Try Unwinding Anxiety’s first modules to see if the program is right for you. Sign up for a free trial and start reshaping your relationship with anxiety, so you can start feeling less anxious and more like yourself.

Sources

American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America 2020.

Dictionary.com. Overwhelm vs. Underwhelm.

Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review.

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Understanding the stress response.

PsychCentral. The Impact of Stress.

Dr.Jud.com. Map My Habit.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F., & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress.

Dr.Jud.com. Ways to Ground Yourself in Uncertain Times.

Dr.Jud.com. Anchoring In The Present Moment Meditation.

Roy A, Druker S, Hoge EA, Brewer JA. Physician Anxiety and Burnout: Symptom Correlates and a Prospective Pilot Study of App-Delivered Mindfulness Training.

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