Why We Get Overwhelmed and What We Can Do

Tired stressed, touching temples, exhausted, fatigued, anxious overwhelmed lady

I hear many people lamenting about how overwhelmed they feel at this time of year. I’m right there with them simultaneously wishing I knew what to do to prevent becoming overwhelmed and then how to address it when it happens. The irony is that when we are overwhelmed our brains don’t allow us to be creative enough to not be overwhelmed. We get overwhelmed about being overwhelmed!

As noted by Psyche Central, “According to a 2020 survey of over 3,000 U.S. residents, conducted by the American Psychological Association, 60% of participants reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of issues that America is currently facing.”

And now that we are post-pandemic, dealing with inflation and all kinds of political issues, our stress levels are probably elevated leading to even greater issues around being overwhelmed! And then we have the holidays to manage!

I thought the information on Talk Space for “overwhelmed” was spot-on. “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 productivity and feel frozen or paralyzed. When you experience emotional overwhelm, it can feel all-consuming….It entails being completely overcome by an unruly and intense emotion that 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.”

You might notice they have created a noun to describe being overwhelmed.

An internet search will provide many ideas for underlying causes for overwhelm, including things like relationship problems, pressures from work, poor nutrition, and lack of sleep. I suggest it goes deeper than these to include things like the unfair expectations we place on ourselves or are inflicted on us, images we have for Hallmark-card lives, loyalties to maintaining what our families communicate are necessary for us to accomplish, the pressure to make everyone happy, fears of being criticized an/or shamed, a need to be perfect and impressive, and just the sheer number of a multitude of pressures we may be feeling.

Regardless of the underlying causes, we need to look at what we can do preventatively to avoid becoming overwhelmed and find solutions when we are drowning in our overwhelm.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed we need to notice our inner dialogue – what we are saying to ourselves that puts unfair pressure on us – and then claim our power to tell ourselves that some expectations are unfair and unnecessary. We need to decide it is okay to be less than perfect. We need to tell ourselves that there are critical, mean people who we need to ignore. We can talk to those in our support networks to process what might be causing us to be overwhelmed and let their perspectives and insights challenge us. We might consider what brings us hope and joy and put energy into bringing these thoughts to the forefront.

For a practical approach, make lists and prioritize the items on them. Enjoy the satisfaction of checking things off. If a list overwhelms you, it’s probably time to address your priorities and be kinder and more realistic and feel okay about removing items that aren’t necessary.

When it comes to the holidays, we can remember the lines from the Dr. Suess classic The Grinch Who Stole Christmas: “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”   

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What causes you to become overwhelmed? Which of the possible causes described in the blog fit your experiences? Would you add something not listed?
  2. What can you do to prevent or address times of being overwhelmed? In addition to using your abilities to manage how you are thinking and what you are believing, how can you get support in your efforts?