When you experience emotional overwhelm, it can feel all-consuming. For the many people who will face this feeling at some point in their lives, it entails being completely overcome by intense and unruly emotions that make us feel something is too challenging to manage and overcome. When confronted with being overwhelmed, it can be difficult to think and act rationally, and even function in a normal way. Needless to say, the experience of this feeling is uncomfortable at best and the causes and effects can span across your personal and professional life.
What Causes Emotional Overwhelm?
When a person believes the stressors are far too great to manage, they become overwhelmed — which means that any number of causes are possible.
Defining Becoming Overwhelmed
Emotional overwhelm entails more than being stressed. By definition being emotionally overwhelmed means to be completely submerged by your thoughts and emotions about all of life’s current problems, to the point where you lack efficacy and feel frozen or paralyzed. Compare the feeling of being overwhelmed to being submerged after a rough wave. It’s a scary experience, you may not know which way is up or what way to swim, you may feel stunned and unable to react. You may be unable to think or act rationally or functionally and emotional overwhelm may impact your relationships or professional life.
Whether brought on by an exceptionally stressful time at work, a traumatic personal experience like losing a loved one, or another inciting factor, emotional overwhelm can occur for a short burst of time or over a much longer period. Sometimes, a series of hardships and challenges occurring in rapid succession can trigger someone to feel overcome by unwieldy emotions. Common experiences that can lead to emotional overwhelm can include:
- Relationship issues
- Physical or mental health illness
- A demanding job
- Lack of nutrition
- Financial distress and insecurity
- Significant life changes
- Time constraints
- Death of a loved one
- Personal traumas such as abuse
- Habitual lack of sleep
Symptoms of Overwhelm
When a person is experiencing an overwhelming feeling, it can take shape in a variety of ways. In each instance, a person is generally more likely to be overwhelmed by negative emotions — anger, fear, anxiety, or guilt — and it is often difficult to understand and verbalize the exact source of the stress. The reason a person’s physiology responds so strongly to this negative emotion is the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” When you begin to feel overwhelmed, cortisol surges through your body and leaves you overloaded with intense anxiety. At the same time, our serotonin stores, the chemical that helps our bodies fight off depression and anxiety, start to deplete.
This combination causes the intense feeling of total despair associated with being overwhelmed. Often, overwhelm is as uncomfortable as it is uncontrollable. It rears its head as anxiety, anger, or significant irritability and worry. Doubt and helplessness also make their way into a person’s normal thought process. Physically, it can manifest when a person lashes out verbally, cries, or has a panic attack. These feelings are often paired with a quickened heartbeat, perspiration, shortness of breath, or even chest pain.
Preventing or Stopping Emotional Overwhelm
No matter the reason, if you feel the onset of overwhelm, there are some ways to help address the emotions both on your own and by leveraging outside support.
1. Accept the anxious feelings
Fighting off all-consuming emotions likely doesn’t do much to ease them in a particularly anxious moment. Try to remember that anxiety, to a certain degree, is a “normal” part of the human experience and use acceptance as a tool to work through those uncomfortable feelings (when possible).
2. Reverse your overwhelmed thought processes
Feelings of unpredictability and complete despair fuel overwhelm. Those unreasonable thoughts build up as anxiety and can cause a person significant distress. Stop those damaging thoughts before they become habitual ruminations by honestly asking yourself if that way of thinking is unreasonable or unhelpful. At the same time, try to find rational, more hopeful thoughts. Taking your thoughts captive is crucial.
3. Take some deep breaths
When you consciously breathe in deep, it triggers your body’s relaxation response and can come in handy during particularly stressful moments.
4. Be in the moment
If your thinking is focused on what the future holds — whether in a few minutes or several years down the road — it may make you more susceptible to becoming overwhelmed. Think about one moment, task, and experience at a time, in the present moment, to help remove the possibility of uncontrollable thoughts that may or may not come about. Remember that you have come through difficult times before.
5. Know your resources
Besides breathing and other techniques to help prevent overwhelm, there is plenty of scientific research available about how stress and anxiety impact our cognitive abilities. To strengthen your ability to manage those feelings, praying, calming your heart through getting in touch with God’s peace can bring a sense of calm that can bring your thoughts more into focus.
How Therapy Can Help You Manage and Prevent Overwhelm
When you are not able to prevent overwhelming thoughts or feelings, therapy is a helpful way to address your response to them. In therapy, a qualified professional is able to help you sort through the issues causing your stress or anxiety and better understand its root causes. Unresolved grief, trauma, unforgiveness and judgements in the heart may cause heaviness and guilt or shame in the heart. A lack of dealing with these issues can easily cause our normal coping mechanisms to fail or “run out” when these internal issues are left unhealed. If these issues were not present, the person likely would be able to readily cope with the current stressors in a healthier way.
When you gain a solid understanding of what stressors and situations trigger this uncomfortable mental state, and more importantly discover healing for root causes, it helps cultivate a calmer frame of mind in the future. With the right tools and hard work, you can help minimize the occurrence and impact of becoming overwhelmed moving forward.
You will likely need help in discovering these underlying causes which will make way for less likeliness of reoccurrence over time, along with cognitive therapy and other treatment modalities.