Overwhelm is a 20-foot wave crashing into you. Repeatedly. Psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, described overwhelm as “feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion.” When we think a stressor is too great for us to manage, we feel overwhelmed, she said.
Feeling overwhelmed has many faces. According to Deibler, overwhelm might manifest as an intense emotion, such as anxiety, anger or irritability; maladaptive thought process, such as worry, doubt or helplessness; and behavior, such as crying, lashing out or experiencing a panic attack.
Anxiety seems to be the most common, according to Kevin L. Chapman, Ph.D, a psychologist and associate professor in clinical psychology at the University of Louisville, where he studies and treats anxiety disorders. For instance, you might experience a fast heartbeat, sweating, tingling, chest pain or shortness of breath, he said.
What causes overwhelm?
“The possibilities are endless,” said Deibler, who’s also director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. And it varies by individual, she said. Overwhelm can peak from a long to-do list we can’t seem to finish or an emotional event like a birth or death, she said.
Whatever the reason behind your overwhelm, here are six strategies to help.
Suggestions for Preventing or Stopping Overwhelm
1. Accept your anxiety.
Has fighting your feelings of overwhelm ever helped you erase them? Probably not. More likely, battling your emotions only boosted them. According to Deibler, “It’s ‘normal’ to experience some degree of anxiety when stressors are unfamiliar, unpredictable, or imminent.” Think of acceptance as riding out a wave, she said.
2. Change overwhelm-inducing thoughts.
Thoughts of uncontrollability or unpredictability are the backbone of overwhelm, according to Chapman. It’s the unrealistic or unreasonable thoughts that spark our stressed-out reaction. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what we tell ourselves and learn to create helpful thoughts.
Let’s say you have a mile-long to-do list, and all you keep thinking is “I’ll never get this done.” That’s a damaging thought that can lead to distress and anxiety, Deibler said. And it paralyzes you from problem-solving and taking action, she said. But remember that you’re not a slave to your ruminations.
Ask yourself “In what ways might this [thought] be inaccurate, unreasonable or unhelpful?” Deibler said. Next, consider how you can think more realistically. Here, your goal is to generate alternative thoughts that will lead to positive emotions and behavior.
For instance, to revise the above overwhelming thought, Deibler suggested these alternatives: “I may not get it all finished today, but if I work on it or if I seek assistance, I will likely get it done;” “I know I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, but if I take a break, I may feel differently about this when I return;” “It seems overwhelming to me right now, but if I break it down into smaller parts, it may be more doable.”
3. Change your multitasking mindset.
“’Multitasking’ by definition implies that we are doing too many things at once,” Chapman said. He suggested readers shift their perspective. “We have to change our expectation that everything has to be completed right now ‘or else.’”
4. Focus on right now.
When you’re consumed with what may or may not happen in several minutes or months, you can’t appreciate the here and now, Deibler said. Instead, schedule time to plan for the future, so you can breathe in the present moment, she said.
5. Take a deep breath.
6. Take action.
To quell overwhelm, engage in an activity that you enjoy, such as listening to music, reading a book or taking a walk, Deibler said. And consider how you can solve the stressors that triggered your overwhelm in the first place, she said.