What Does It Mean to Feel Overwhelmed?

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When overwhelmed, a person is flooded by thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations—often related to a specific problem—that can be difficult for them to manage, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Do you feel like you have so much going on that you’re struggling to cope with it all? Or, are you going through something stressful that’s making it difficult for you to function? These are some of the signs of being overwhelmed.

Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time and it is a completely normal response to everyday stressors, says Dr. Romanoff. Stress can sometimes be helpful, because it fires up your system and helps you be more productive. However, being chronically stressed out and constantly feeling overwhelmed can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

This article explores the symptoms and causes of feeling overwhelmed, as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful.

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Signs and Symptoms of Being Overwhelmed

These are some of the signs that you’re overwhelmed, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Irrational thoughts: You may struggle to think rationally, which can make the problem seem inflated and your perceived ability to deal with it feel deflated.
  • Paralysis: You may experience a freeze response that can cause you to feel paralyzed and unable to function. Even simple tasks can feel impossible. You may find yourself postponing stressful tasks, or avoid them altogether.
  • Disproportionate reactions: You may overreact to minor stressors. For instance, you may panic if you’re unable to find your keys.
  • Withdrawal: You may find yourself withdrawing from friends and family. You may feel like they can’t help you or understand what you’re going through.
  • Pessimism: You may feel helpless and hopeless about the situation. 
  • Mood changes: You may feel angry, irritable, or anxious, and cry easily.
  • Cognitive fatigue: You may feel confused and have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and solving problems.
  • Physical symptoms: You may experience physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, cramps, an upset stomach, or other aches and pains.

Being chronically stressed and overwhelmed can lead to physical and mental health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Reasons Why You May Feel Overwhelmed

A precipitating stressor, an unexpected event, or poor mental health can cause you to feel overwhelmed, says Dr. Romanoff. She explains that you may also feel overwhelmed if a series of stressors accumulate and pile up on you. A lack of coping skills can also exacerbate symptoms.

These are some of the common triggers that can cause you to feel overwhelmed, according to Dr. Romanoff:

Having a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) might predispose a person to feeling overwhelmed, says Dr. Romanoff.

Coping With Being Overwhelmed

Below, Dr. Romanoff shares some strategies that can help you cope, if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Change Your Perspective 

Take a step back from your thought processes. Recognize and accept how you are feeling and the situation you are in. Stop the vicious emotional cycle of rumination

Do what you can to get some perspective on the situation. You can try taking a break from the situation, going for a walk, changing your environment, speaking to a friend, or taking a few deep breaths.

Seek out resources to help you solve the problem. This could mean asking for help, doing something to recalibrate your perspective, or approaching the problem from a different angle.

Challenge Your Assumptions

When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to let irrational thoughts and fears guide us, instead of being logical. For instance, if you’re going through a break-up, you may worry about what people may think about you, or you may stress about being single and ending up alone.

It can be helpful to identify illogical assumptions and articulate them, so you can examine them in the light of day and see that they don’t necessarily hold true. You can try writing them down in a journal or voicing them out loud to someone you trust.

Seek Support

Reach out to your social support network. Your friends, family, and colleagues may be able to offer advice, support, and a different perspective.

Accept the help of your loved ones and let them be there for you. Even just talking to supportive people in your life can help you feel safer and more validated in the context of the stressor.

Try Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness can be very helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise use your senses to connect you to your environment and help you get out of the chaos of your mind.

You can perform the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise by sitting in a quiet spot and noticing things around you. Try to list:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch or feel
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

This exercise can help you calm down and step away from the overwhelming thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing. You can use it to take a break and then reapproach the issue later from a fresh perspective.

See a Therapist

Therapy can help you develop the skills you need to manage feelings of being overwhelmed. It also can help you understand why you tend to have this strong response to stressors, particularly if you have a history of feeling overwhelmed.

Therapy can also help you find ways to increase confidence through competence, both of which positively reinforce each other—the more competent you are, the more confident you feel, and vice versa.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re dealing with something stressful, you may start to feel overwhelmed and have difficulty coping. You may find yourself ruminating over the problem constantly and feeling frozen or paralyzed. You may even start to feel sick and experience other physical symptoms.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to take a break from the issue, get some perspective on it, talk to your loved ones about it, and then come back to it when you’re feeling better. Therapy can also be a source of support that can help you understand your reaction and develop coping skills to deal with it.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.