Mental health and overwhelm

Mental Health and Overwhelm: Recognising When It’s More Than Just Stress

Feeling overwhelmed is an experience that happens to everyone from time to time, for different reasons. Whether it’s your job, your studies, your family, or your romantic relationships, life can become inherently overwhelming at times. You may be asking yourself, is this normal? Why am I getting overwhelmed so easily? Does everybody feel this way? Can I be too overwhelmed? To answer these questions briefly, feeling overwhelmed is an entirely natural human emotion that everyone will experience during their life. However, when your feelings of overwhelm become too much to handle, they can begin to impact your day-to-day life and overall mental health. In this case, it’s important to understand what the causes are, what symptoms to look out for, and how to manage them using techniques and/or by reaching out to a mental health professional. In this blog post, we’re going to be taking a look at just that!

Understanding Overwhelm: What It Is and What Causes It

Overwhelm can be understood as an abundance of negative feelings, self-doubt, and a general instability on how to proceed. The feeling itself can arise at any time, sometimes out of the blue, but is more often a result of multiple things ‘piling on’ [1].  If you are experiencing a sense of fear, an inability to focus, feeling overwhelmed with life, rising panic, and a feeling that things are out of your control, you are likely in a state of overwhelm. These feelings can lead to anxiety, unhealthy stress, and burnout if left untreated [2].

Causes of overwhelm

Determining the cause of your overwhelm can be a difficult task, as it is often a result of multiple factors at once. It is important to remember that what might be overwhelming to some, might be relatively normal to others [1]. Because of this, determining what is causing your overwhelm is personal. Some of the major causes of overwhelm include:

  • Too many responsibilities/burnout

Whether it’s responsibilities at home, at work, at school, or in your personal life, too many responsibilities piling up can result in feelings of overwhelm. When many tasks build up, they begin to increase the complexity of our days and take up our time and attention. This can cause us to lose our ability to cope with the task at hand, resulting in burnout and overwhelm.

  • Anxiety disorders

Having an existing anxiety disorder can cause us to have anxiety or panic attacks when we feel overwhelmed. It can also contribute to feeling on edge and struggling to concentrate.

  • Traumatic events

Experiencing any kind of traumatic event is overwhelming in itself. However, remembering past traumatic events can also bring about feelings of overwhelm. In these circumstances, our body goes on high alert, often accompanied by a lack of control.

  • Life changes

Major life changes such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, moving countries, schools or jobs are all examples of life changes that can result in heightened feelings of overwhelm.

The Impact of Feeling Overwhelmed on Mental Health

Emotional overwhelm can result in a number of mental and physical health problems if left untreated [3]. These include:

  • Exhaustion: overwhelm can make it increasingly difficult to wake up in the morning and start your day. You may also feel fatigued throughout the day as a result of the heavy mental load caused by overwhelm.  
  • Lack of motivation: a sense of anhedonia might also accompany your feeling of overwhelm. More specifically, you may experience less pleasure when doing the things that you would usually enjoy.
  • Negative emotions: feeling overwhelmed can also cause an increase in irritation and anger. Because your plate already seems so full, anything else that might affect you emotionally or mentally may trigger negative emotions. 
  • Interpersonal problems: if overwhelm is left untreated, you may begin to notice that your interpersonal relationships and social life are being affected. As the majority of your time is spent tackling overwhelming tasks, or regulating your residual emotions, you are likely to have less time to devote to others. 
  • Health problems: recurrent headaches, neck pain, muscle stiffness, shortness of breath, heart and lung pain, as well as indigestion are all potential physical problems that can arise as a result of overwhelm.  

In combination, these effects can result in or further heighten symptoms of depression and anxiety, if left untreated.

Signs and Symptoms of Overwhelm

The signs and symptoms of overwhelm can be divided into cognitive, behavioural, physical, and emotional symptoms. It is important to remember that overwhelm is different for everyone, so the severity or recurrence of certain symptoms can vary [4].

  • Cognitive symptoms:
    • Difficulty concentrating 
    • Lack of self-confidence
    • Persistent worry 
    • Difficulty making decisions 
  • Behavioural symptoms: 
    • Social withdrawal 
    • Increased use of caffeine/nicotine/alcohol or other substances 
    • Change in eating patterns 
    • Change in sleep patterns 
    • Decline in productivity 
  • Emotional symptoms:
    • Negative mood 
    • Irritability 
    • Feelings of hopelessness 
    • Anxiety
    • Unhappiness/guilt 
    • Easily agitated
  • Physical symptoms 
    • Headaches 
    • Muscle tension 
    • Digestive problems 
    • Nausea
    • Low libido 
    • Rapid heart
    • Fatigue

Strategies for Coping with Overwhelm

Although experiencing overwhelm can be incredibly challenging, and can feel almost impossible to overcome at times, there are a number of strategies that you can use in order to cope. These include:

  • Challenge your thoughts: when we feel overwhelmed, we tend to allow our irrational thoughts to take over. However, these thoughts are often just that – irrational. It can be helpful to articulate your recurrent thoughts either out loud, or by writing them down. By doing so, you’ll be able to analyse your thoughts and show yourself that they are not necessarily true [5]
  • Mindfulness strategies: Mindfulness can be an incredibly helpful strategy to cope with overwhelm. The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise is a great way to connect to your environment and escape your racing thoughts. Count 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste [5]
  • Seek out social support: consider reaching out to a close friend, family member, or colleague as they may offer you advice, a new perspective, or provide emotional support. By talking to someone you trust, you’ll be able to feel safer and ground yourself. 
  • Self-care: carrying out self-care rituals can be a great way to cope with overwhelm as you take open-ended alone time, away from the responsibilities you may be overwhelmed by. By doing so, you can take a rest from sensory stimulation and return at a later time feeling refreshed. Examples of self-care include taking a walk, going on a picnic, taking a long bath, listening to music, or doing something creative [6].

When to Seek Professional Help

If you notice that your feelings of overwhelm are impacting your day-to-day functioning in a significant way or have become incredibly distressing, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. There are a number of different therapies available when dealing with overwhelm. 

At Therapy Central we offer stress counselling, anxiety therapy, and work-stress counselling for specific work-related overwhelm. This treatment is available in London and everywhere else online. We use evidence-based interventions such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and other approaches to help you manage your symptoms and reduce your feelings of overwhelm.  

In seeking professional help, you’ll be able to talk about your experience with professionals who are equipped to provide you with the help you need and support you in regaining control over your life.  

Consider contacting one of our qualified therapists today.

You can contact us and request a free 15 min consultation to see whether our help will suit your needs.




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