We all feel overwhelmed at times. Seemingly insignificant circumstances can tip us over the edge into feelings of overwhelm that on other occasions wouldn’t bother us at all.

What one person finds overwhelming, others cope with comfortably or even thrive on.

People have different thresholds and causes, but we all experience it and it’s not nice or good for us.

So what is it, what causes it and how can we go about dealing with overwhelm?

“The challenge in my life really is keeping the balance between feeling creatively energized and fulfilled without feeling overwhelmed and like I’m in the middle of a battlefield” ~ Amanda Palmer

What is overwhelm?

Overwhelm according to psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, is what happens when we’re ‘feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion…When we think a stressor is too great for us to manage, we feel overwhelmed.’

We experience it in our emotions – feeling anxiety, anger or irritability; in our thoughts as worry, helplessness and doubt and in behaviour like crying or panic.

Causes of overwhelm

The list is endless and personal to you but here are 9 common causes.

  1. Busyness – not a problem in itself but becomes overwhelming when there’s too much to in insufficient time.
  2. Worry – feeling worried leads to overwhelm went the worry gets out of hand.  For example financial worry.
  3. Stress – if we’re already feeling stressed about something it can quickly escalate to overwhelm.
  4. Circumstances – things that happen in our lives like family or work commitments or expectations of others.
  5. Illness and pain – when we’re ill our reserves for resilience are depleted and we become much more susceptible to overwhelm. 
  6. Emotional times – emotions like grief or love can overwhelm us.
  7. Constant communication – the fast paced constant presence of technology, including social media, can make us feel overwhelmed with the need to keep up with what’s going on and a perceived need to be available.
  8. Lack of autonomy – when we feel imposed on or lacking control over what’s happening to us, e.g. in the work place.
  9. Self-generated pressure – from perfectionist or controlling behaviour.

“At some stages of your life you will deal with things and at others you are overwhelmed with misery and anxiety.” ~ Nigella Lawson

Dealing with overwhelm

Be realistic

Be realistic about the commitments you take on and how long something will really take to do.

Give up multi-tasking (it’s a myth anyway).

Learn to say no

If you think you can’t do it well or don’t have time to do it or just don’t want to do it – if there is any element of choice – learn to say no.

Many of us find it hard to say no to requests for our time and attention because we think people wont think so much of us or like us if we say no to their request. Practice saying no.  Avoid saying yes straight away by developing a tactic to give you a chance to reflect, like checking your calendar.

Take control or give up control

Find a way to seize an element of control in an overwhelming situation.

E.g. if you’re finances are overwhelming you – start organising them, get familiar with them – face up to it and start taking some control.

If you’ve taken on too much because you want to be in control then it’s about giving up control – letting others in to play their part. Ask for help and accept it.

Keep things in perspective

Does it really matter that much if it doesn’t get done, or it’s late?

Why are you getting worked up about it – are you worried about what others will think. Notice your underlying self- beliefs.

Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen.

Change your energy

Do something to dissipate the negative energy building up and change it to a more positive energy like get up or go out and do something physical – walk, jump, dance.

Break the cycle and put a bit of distance between you and the situation that’s causing you overwhelm by doing an activity you enjoy and can immerse yourself in.


Break a downward spiral of thought by finding a small slightly more positive thought connected to the situation that give you a small nudge from negative towards the positive, and then another so you gradually pivot.


Find something to be thankful or appreciative or grateful for.


Look at your priorities – and prioritise them. Don’t try and do everything because no-one can.

Set boundaries for yourself – around your time and activities..


Take a few moments a step back physically and mentally and slow down your mind – focusing on the present moment – not worrying about the future – even the near future and everything you have to do – not worrying about the past and what you didn’t get done – but spending a few moments in the here and now in a non-critical non-judgemental way.

Affirmations and visualisation

Affirm the behaviour you want to have and visualise the person you want to be.

The Changeability Podcast episode 55

Hear us talk about all of this and more in episode 55 of The Changeability Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or the podcast player at the top of this page.

Links mentioned on the show this week: