What is Overwhelm?

Psychologist Maria W. Deibler, PsyD, describes overwhelm as ‘feeling completely overcome in mind and emotion’. Essentially, when we believe an external stressor is too great for us to manage, we feel overwhelmed. External stressors are events and situations that happen to us. Basic examples include major life changes (both positive and negative), our immediate environment, unpredictable events, the workplace, social situations, and relationships.

Overwhelm can show up in a variety of ways. You may experience anger, irritability, worry, self-doubt and feelings of helplessness, but anxiety is probably the most common response.

Anxiety is what we feel when we’re worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. It’s a natural human response when we perceive that we’re under threat and it can be experienced through our thoughts and feelings, as well as in the form of physical sensations like a racing heartbeat, chest pain or shortness of breath. 

What Causes Overwhelm?

The list of possible causes is endless. Overwhelm might stem from a long to-do list you can’t seem to finish or a significant emotional event such as birth or death.

Because overwhelm can arise at any time for any number of reasons, it’s a good idea to have some simple strategies in place to help you avoid it.

How to Avoid Overwhelm

  1. Lighten Your Load

You can do anything, but not everything. If you start feeling overwhelmed, try culling and postponing tasks and responsibilities. Remember, it’s OK to have boundaries. Learn to say no if you need to.

Delegating is another great way to avoid overwhelm, but it’s something people often struggle with. Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a sign of strength. At some point, even the most accomplished people need assistance or support. It’s time to stop believing you must be the one who does it all and start accepting you’re only one person.

  1. Try Single Tasking

Despite everything you think you know about productivity, multitasking is a myth. Switching from one task to the next and back again is exhausting and can leave you feeling depleted and drained. Instead, try focusing on one thing at a time, giving each task your full attention until it’s completed.

  1. Be Kind to Yourself

Overwhelm can quickly lead to feelings of failure and inadequacy. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and keep your inner-critic under control. Consider how you would support a friend in the same situation. What would you tell them? How would you help them cope?

When life gets busy, self-care can often feel like another task on your never-ending to-do list. But deciding to tend to your own needs for rest, nourishment, sleep and reflection is always worth it. It means you’ll return to the world refreshed and with new energy and ideas. More importantly, you’ll have a greater capacity for your work and the care of others. You can read more about overcoming resistance to self-care here.

  1. Meditate

Although it might seem counterintuitive to slow down or stop what you’re doing when tasks start piling up, taking time out to meditate is one of the best things you can do.

Slowing down, being present and connecting with ourselves cultivates a sense of inner peace, which is exactly what you need when life feels overwhelming. Try some simple breathing techniques or this meditation for beginners.

What do you do to avoid overwhelm?

Love the SOL team x

Your Weekly Wellbeing Workbook

Download your free workbook – it includes a practical 2-step process to help you to connect with yourself and create a weekly plan that integrates wellbeing practices into your everyday life.