Overcoming Overwhelm: Reclaim Your Life

Posted January 9, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

Offering Online Counselling and in person counselling.

Cristina Vrech can help with...

Feeling overwhelmed is, unsurprisingly, very common in our modern, fast-paced world. A steady stream of stimuli punctuates our days, from the demands of work to incessant pings from our devices to the constant access to real-time updates on disasters and conflicts across the globe. Underpinning all of this is the pervasive sense, exacerbated by social media, that we should somehow always be doing better and more. This combination spells out the perfect recipe for overwhelm.

It’s important to note that overwhelm is not just a fleeting emotion; it is a signal from within that we are navigating high levels of stress. Stress is not an inherently negative or detrimental thing. Humans have developed to experience it as a survival mechanism – a signifier that alerts us to something urgent, and this can be useful. For example, experiencing the appropriate amount of stress about a project or deadline can catalyse us, helping to ensure we deliver on time to the best of our ability.

However, if you find yourself regularly or consistently feeling overwhelmed, it’s crucial to take a step back and assess your capacity and priorities.

Overwhelm can be described as a state of emotional paralysis, where the number of factors, choices or consequences seems so great that we find ourselves immobilised, unable to act or make a decision. Remaining in a state of being overwhelmed is detrimental to mental and physical health. If you find yourself regularly feeling panicked, unable to focus, decide, or maintain some control over your daily life, you likely need to make some changes. Minimising or ignoring feelings of being overwhelmed can lead to unhealthy or chronic stress, a decline in mental and physical health, and burnout.

A row of burnt matches, from left to right, from almost a whole match to a completely burnt match to the dust. White background, flat lay.

These adjustments don’t have to be monumental. Often, small, thoughtful shifts can make a significant impact. The key is to start.

What causes overwhelm?

Experiencing a state of overwhelm can stem from many things. Some of the causes of feeling stressed and overwhelmed include:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Grief
  • Traumatic events
  • Too many responsibilities or excessive workload
  • Unhealthy work or home environment
  • Burnout
  • Life changes
  • Relationship issues or breakups
  • Global, local, environmental or political issues

Some of these, such as anxiety, stress and burnout, can also be the results of being overwhelmed. It’s essential to approach yourself with kindness and gentleness during this time – these feelings can be deep-rooted and may not disappear overnight.

What does overwhelm feel like?

Long-term overwhelm can be an unpleasant and stressful experience. Some of the signs you may be perpetually overwhelmed include:

  • Mood changes: experiencing irritability, anxiety, anger or crying more than usual.
  • “Brain fog” or “brain freeze”: feeling unable to think clearly, make decisions, concentrate or solve problems.
  • Irrational or inflated pessimistic thoughts: thinking negatively about things in ways which wouldn’t usually make sense to you, making the issue much more prominent in your head than it is. This can lead to avoiding dealing with the problem, which can worsen things.
  • Physical symptoms: dizziness, your heart beating more rapidly, tight chest, headaches or migraines, stomach cramps or pains and fatigue.
  • Tiredness and exhaustion
  • Health issues such as weight changes, difficulty sleeping, headaches, digestive problems and muscle tension.

You may experience thoughts like:

  • “I can’t handle this.”
  • “It’s all too much.”
  • “I can’t cope with this.”
  • “I can’t do this on my own.”

You may also experience:

  • Issues in your relationships
  • Lack of motivation

How to Start Overcoming Overwhelm

Empowerment begins with acknowledging that overcoming overwhelm is not passive; it’s an intentional journey of pinpointing stress triggers, implementing tailored changes, and discovering effective, personalised coping mechanisms. Some approaches for this may include:

Learning where your overwhelm stems from

The first step is to pinpoint what in your life is overwhelming you. You may have committed to more than you can balance, or you may be experiencing high stress levels in one specific area. Understanding where your overwhelm is coming from will allow you to evaluate your situation and decide where you can create balance. This may look like asking for support, delegating tasks, reducing effort in other areas to focus on one thing or developing new skills to cope with periods of heightened stress.

Getting familiar with your thought processes

Do you often find yourself experiencing spiralling negative thoughts? Or perhaps you have associations of yourself which prevent you from feeling capable of tackling your issues? These are habits that your brain has formed over time, and the first step to counting automatic thoughts is to increase your awareness of them and how they are triggered. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness exercises can be instrumental in gaining the skills to recognise and challenge these thoughts.

Setting boundaries

Setting firm boundaries is crucial, especially if you regularly take on more responsibilities than you can manage or find yourself in situations you find stressful. Finding a method which works for you and your needs is essential. For example, you may need to discuss your capacity limits with your manager or partner or learn how to delegate tasks to others effectively.

Getting organised

Although it might be tempting to avoid thinking about your to-do list, in the long run, all this does is delay the inevitable. Confronting your responsibilities head-on enables you to tackle them on your own terms. By listing your tasks and responsibilities, you can look at which should take priority, which can wait, and which are unnecessary or can be delegated. This may provide a sense of perspective and control, which can reduce your feelings of stress and feeling overwhelmed.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” – Mark Twain

Seeking support

Reaching out for help is a sign of strength. Greatness rarely happens in isolation, and by working with your support network – such as family, friends and colleagues – you can gain tangible support, valuable advice and outsider perspectives. Even just voicing your concerns can lighten your emotional load; things often seem worse in our minds than when we say them aloud.

Consulting with a professional therapist or counsellor can also help. They can support you in gaining skills and strategies to manage your responses to stress and your feelings of being overwhelmed. A therapist can also help you to understand the underlying issues which lead to regularly becoming stressed and overwhelmed, such as not setting firm boundaries.

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“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” – Anne Lamott

Remember that feeling overwhelmed is a universal experience and isn’t a flaw or an indicator of character. It’s your body and brain’s way of telling you that you need to slow down, assess your priorities and make adjustments to create balance. By intentionally creating space for yourself, you can create a life which fulfils all of your material, physical and spiritual needs.