Do you ever feel overwhelmed? It’s been a difficult couple of years for all of us. It’s no wonder that everything just feels too much sometimes. Maybe you feel overwhelmed at work – or overwhelmed with life in general. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed for no apparent reason at all. Overwhelm may last for a brief period. Or you may wonder: “Why do I feel overwhelmed all the time?” Here are some reasons you might feel overwhelmed – and what you can do about it.

What is overwhelm?

Overwhelm is more than stress. It’s when everything suddenly seems too much, and we don’t think we can cope. You might feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, emotions and problems. There may be obvious external triggers, such as work – or there may be no obvious apparent reason. But, whatever the cause, you may feel stunned, frozen and unable to act. Just when you need to, to deal with whatever is going on to make you feel this way.

Overwhelm can occur for a short burst of time, or over a much longer period. Sometimes, a series of small problems, challenges and hardships can build up, especially if they come in quick succession. Something seemingly small may be the ‘final straw’ that breaks the camel’s back. You’ve come to the limit of your resources.

Reasons you might feel overwhelmed include:

  • Workload. Do you have too much to do, or work in a stressful, demanding job? Or do you find yourself routinely working evenings and weekends?
  • Traumatic experience. Such as a bereavement, relationship breakup, job loss, bankruptcy, accident, illness or abuse.
  • Life changes. Such as moving house, starting a new job, getting married or having a new baby.
  • Perfectionism. If everything always has to be perfect, you’re giving yourself a greater burden. Sometimes just getting through the day is a win. You don’t have to do it all perfectly too – you’re only human!
  • Lack of sleep. It’s hard to stay on top of things if you’re not getting enough sleep and are tired all the time.
  • COVID. We’ve all had a lot to cope with in recent years, and even things we might previously been able to deal with can suddenly seem too much. Living through a global pandemic is exhausting. It makes everything feel more difficult. Our capacity to deal with stuff becomes obverburdened, and we reach breaking point sooner.

Why do I feel overwhelmed all the time?

We commonly feel overwhelmed for a limited period in response to a specific trigger. But what if you feel overwhelmed all the time? Rather like ‘burnout’, chronic overwhelm can be the result of an accumulation of stress over a long period of time. This can be due to a particularly rough patch, with lots of difficult events to deal with, one on top of another. It might be due to chronic stress at work. Or it may suggest a mental health difficulty you’re struggling with.

The warning signs are often there before you reach the point of feeling constantly overwhelmed. So they’re worth paying attention to – and taking action if you can. This may involve an adjustment of lifestyle factors, practicing self-care, or seeking help from a GP or therapist.

Why do I feel overwhelmed for no reason?

There’s not always an obvious external event or ‘final straw’. Sometimes there seems to be no obvious reason for feeling overwhelmed. Why might this be? While some types of overwhelm have obvious triggers, others are harder to explain. And this might be a sign that you’re struggling with anxiety.

Feeling overwhelmed is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. While anxiety is a normal emotion that we all feel in response to threat or danger, sometimes we can experience anxiety that’s out of proportion to events. If you feel worry, stressed or anxious over a long period of time, if it’s interfering with your daily life, or you feel overwhelmed for no apparent reason, it’s possible you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder.

The good news is that anxiety is very treatable. Things like mediation and breathing techniques can help. Speaking to a therapist is enormously beneficial to help you understand the root of your anxiety and what you can do about it. And there are lots of self-help resources – such as our Self-care course ‘Manage Anxiety’, which you can access from the My Online Therapy app.

How to stop feeling overwhelmed at work – 5 tips to help you get on top of things

Overwhelm at work is a particular form of overwhelm. And it’s very common. You may feel overwhelmed because of an unrealistic workload, under-staffing or under-resourcing. Maybe you have a demanding boss or difficult colleagues. You might also feel emotionally overwhelmed, particularly if you work in a setting where there’s an emotional aspect to your work – such as a caring role.

Sometimes a change of job or career may be the only option. There’s a lot of talk of ‘The Great Resignation’ at the moment. The pandemic has made a lot of people rethink their priorities – and work is a big one. While quitting a job to prioritise your mental health is understandable, there may be other things you can try first:

  1. Ruthlessly prioritise. What’s the most important thing you need to do today? You can’t do everything – so what will have the most impact?
  2. Restructure your work. Have a conversation with your boss about your workload. Is there a way you can make it more manageable?
  3. Restructure your role. It may be possible to restructure your role too. For example, you may be able to adjust your role, responsibilities, reporting structure, or even go part-time.
  4. Set boundaries. Don’t work unpaid overtime, or reply to work emails after 6pm. To make sure colleagues respect boundaries, consider switching off notifications in the evenings, at weekends and when you’re on holiday. And use ‘out of office’ emails.
  5. Take a break. Have you used your full holiday entitlement this year? Make sure you take a proper break from work. You’ll come back refreshed, better able to cope, and with a new perspective.

What to do when you feel overwhelmed with life – 10 ways to feel more in control

When things start to get on top of you, there are a number of things you can do. Try the following to control your feelings of overwhelm:

  1. Focus on one thing. You’ll never get to the end of your to-do list. And that’s OK. While writing out your full to-do list might help you feel more in control, it may also increase your feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. In his book Supercoach, Michael Neill suggests you keep another list, with just one item on it. What’s the most important thing you need to do today? Focus on that. Then, when it’s completed, you can move another thing onto your one-item list. It’ll help you feel less overwhelmed.
  2. Write it down. When you feel overwhelmed, another form of writing you can try is journaling. Get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. It’ll help relax your mind and reduce your stress levels.
  3. Just say ‘No’. Many of us struggle to say ‘no’ or put other people’s feelings before our own. But it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. It’s not selfish to prioritise your own wellbeing. Fill your own cup first – you can’t fill someone else’s if yours is empty!
  4. Schedule in ‘me time’. Make time for yourself too. However busy you are, it’s important to priotitise self-care. For many of us, if it’s not scheduled in, it won’t happen. So block out time for that yoga class, lunchtime walk, drink with a friend, indulgent bath or to read a chapter of your book.
  5. Take some deep breaths. If you find yourself in a particularly stressful moment, take some deep breaths. This triggers your body’s relaxation response. One breathing technique used for anxiety is the 4-7-8 technique. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, and breath out through your mouth for eight seconds. And repeat the cycle up to four times.
  6. Meditate. While deep breathing in the moment will help calm you down, a regular practice of mindful meditation will help you cope with an ongoing stressful situation. Set aside some time in the morning. It’ll help you tackle whatever the day holds. Yoga and progressive muscle relaxation can also help you focus on your body instead of the thoughts racing through your mind.
  7. Go on a digital detox. Social media addiction, email notifications and constant pings and alerts from various apps can all add to our feelings of overwhelm. Try turning off notifications, and schedule time when you don’t look at your phone. Especially in the hour before you go to bed!
  8. Get a good night’s sleep. Because poor sleep is associated with overwhelm, if you can develop some healthy sleep habits – otherwise known as good ‘sleep hygiene’ – you’ll have more resources to help you face the next day.
  9. Go for a walk. Walking makes it harder for your mind and body to feel as overwhelmed. Especially if you go for a ‘mindful’ walk, and really pay attention to what you can see, feel, hear and smell. And exercise is great for your mental health.
  10. Avoid perfectionism. Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. No one is. Try to lower your standards, and see if anyone even notices. Focus on being good enough.

Finally, because overwhelm can be an indicator of bigger issues beneath the surface, speaking to a therapist can be enormously beneficial in helping you get to the root of the problem, and develop some coping strategies. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy.