What to do when you realize “I’m overwhelmed”

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Being overwhelmed can be a standard part of life. When experiencing high stress levels, a sense of emotional and physical distress may occur. However, in many cases, these symptoms subside as the stressor is eliminated or resolved.
Feeling overwhelmed after a particularly stressful or significant life change, such as starting a new job, may not be unusual. However, if your overwhelming feelings persist over a few weeks, they may indicate a more significant concern. If you realize you’re overwhelmed, it may be helpful to look at common causes of overwhelm and ways to find long-term support for this challenge.
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Potential causes of overwhelming feelings
When addressing a problem, it can be beneficial to identify what is causing it. If your feelings of overwhelm are consistent regardless of the events in your life, you may be experiencing a mental health condition. However, overwhelming feelings can also be caused by personality traits, relationship styles, and other challenges. Understanding these causes could help you develop a plan of action.
Anxious attachment
If you can navigate aspects of your day-to-day life and avoid feeling overwhelmed but experience high levels of anxiety and stress surrounding relationships with other people or a fear of losing others, you may have what is known as an anxious attachment style.
Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first discovered four attachment styles in the 1950s and outlined these styles to describe how people connect with and relate to others. The four styles include anxious attachment, secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious-avoidant attachment. A person’s attachment style is shaped by how their primary caregivers interacted with them when they were young.
An anxious attachment style often stems from inconsistency in the relationship between a child and their caregivers. If a family member sometimes responds to a child’s needs with adequate nurturing but other times is unresponsive, intrusive, or insensitive or only responds with care when the child appeases them in some way, a child can learn that expressions of love are inherently linked with feelings of anxiety.
This association between love and anxiety can persist into adulthood, which can lead to damaging relationship interactions and patterns. If you identify with any of the below symptoms, you may have an anxious attachment style, causing you to feel overwhelmed in your relationships:
Intense fear of rejection or abandonment
High levels of insecurity
Difficulty trusting others
A core belief that you are inadequate or cannot be “good enough”
Self-criticism and blame, even in situations you have no control over
Perception of being “clingy” or “needy” in romantic relationships
High dependency on other people, especially in terms of self-image
Emotional instability
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can impede functioning and well-being, including the tendency to be easily overwhelmed. What differentiates the overwhelm associated with PTSD from the overwhelm linked to other mental health issues and stressors is that to receive a PTSD diagnosis, you need to have a history of trauma, whether you directly experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
Some situations can be traumatizing for certain people and not others, so there is no set list of traumatic events. Common examples of events that can be traumatic include experiencing war (whether as a soldier or as a civilian living in a war zone), living through an accident like a car crash, surviving a crime (such as a physical or sexual assault or another form of violence), and enduring long-term traumas such as domestic violence or childhood abuse.
Symptoms of PTSD
A person with PTSD may struggle with feeling safe and understanding that a traumatic event is unlikely to reoccur, which can be intensely overwhelming. Some symptoms associated with PTSD include:
An impaired ability to focus, concentrate, remember, and enact other forms of mental cognition, especially around stimuli related to the past trauma
Self-harming behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as cutting, burning, emotional eating, forced vomiting, using illicit substances, or engaging in extreme risks
Nightmares and difficulty sleeping through the night or flashbacks where you believe you are re-living the past trauma
Persistent fear, horror, shame, distress, anger, or a sense of being “on edge”
Unhealthy beliefs about the world or yourself
Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, memories, reminders, and relationships connected to the past trauma
Hypervigilance
Feeling guilty about surviving the past trauma
Believing you caused the past trauma or could have prevented it
Recurring memories of past trauma
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Anxiety
Feeling overwhelmed is one of the core symptoms of various anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) include social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and specific phobias. However, the word “anxiety” is often used to refer to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
GAD can cause anxiety not associated with any situation, fear, or inciting event but a general sense of anxiety and overwhelm that a person can experience every day for months or years. Symptoms of GAD may include the following:
Nervous movements such as shivering, twitching, trembling, or fidgeting
Restlessness, exhaustion, or sleep difficulties
A consistent, obsessive, and overwhelming sense of worry
Impaired decision-making abilities, often referred to as “analysis paralysis”
A tendency to catastrophize
Hypervigilance or being constantly overwhelmed in preparation for disaster
Nausea, stomachaches, headaches, excessive sweatiness, or other muscle aches
Suicidal thoughts
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also provides an online chat for those with an internet connection.
A man in a blue shirt with glasses sits at his desk with his laptop open infront of his and looks down at some papers in his hands.
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Explore evidence-based ways to reduce anxiety
Chat with a therapist
Support options
If you are overwhelmed due to a stressful temporary life situation, such as bringing home a new baby or relocating to a different city, there are strategies you can use to manage your overwhelm in the short term. These methods may also be beneficial for improving your health overall and can include exercising, meditating, going to bed early, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol. However, if your overwhelm is related to one of the personality traits or mental health conditions described above, you may benefit from professional mental health support.
If you find it intimidating to reach out to a therapist due to anxiety or another barrier, you might also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. With online therapy, you can match with a therapist and schedule and attend sessions from the safety and comfort of your home. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your therapist.
Research has indicated that attending therapy online may be as effective as attending traditional in-person therapy, including when alleviating feelings of overwhelm. One study found that online therapy successfully treated the symptoms of mental health conditions related to overwhelming emotions, including PTSD, panic disorder, anxiety, and relationship attachment concerns.
Takeaway
Feeling consistently overwhelmed could be linked to various causes, including an insecure attachment style or mental health conditions like PTSD or GAD. Talking to an online therapist can be a beneficial way to learn how to process your overwhelming feelings. Consider contacting a provider online or in your area to get started.**


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