Daniel LaCroix, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and serves as the Director of Inova Integrated Behavioral Health Services.
You’re not alone. We are living through particularly tumultuous and challenging times. Overwhelm is a feeling that we have too many responsibilities and can’t do it all. We’re stretched too thin, and we may also feel trapped. When we feel overwhelmed, it feels like the world is happening to us and we can’t change our experience. That sense of not feeling empowered to make changes in our circumstances is what really drives overwhelm.
What are the signs of stress-related overwhelm?
It’s important to observe and study ourselves, so that we notice changes to our behaviors and moods before they become bigger problems. Signs of overwhelm can include:
- Increased agitation
- Low tolerance for frustration
- Imagining the worst outcome (called “catastrophizing”)
- Not feeling motivated at home, at work, or in our relationships
- Avoidance – procrastination on tasks at work and at home, avoiding people
- Having physical symptoms – headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms
- Changes in appetite
- Weight fluctuations
- Sleep disturbances
- Increase in unhealthy coping skills (such as drinking, drug use, or gambling)
- Isolation – losing interest in social activities
- Not caring about grooming or appearance
How can I help myself feel better when I’m experiencing overwhelm-related stress?
When you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, there are several things you can do to help yourself feel better:
- Acknowledge how you’re feeling emotionally and physically, and treat yourself with compassion.
- Try not to judge yourself or criticize yourself for feeling overwhelmed.
- Consider what help you would offer a friend who came to you sharing that they felt overwhelmed. What you would say to a friend is what is most helpful to say to yourself.
- Reach out to a trusted loved one and tell them how you’re feeling.
- Add some positive behaviors that will help boost your mood – getting good sleep and getting some exercise are two things that can really help. Perhaps take a walk or spend some time in your garden to get outside and moving.
- Take a break and do something fun – call a friend, devote a few minutes to a creative activity or listen to some music.
- Prioritize. We do ourselves a favor when we accept that we can’t do it all and instead choose to do what is most important. You may have heard the cliché that you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others. It’s the same with overwhelm: to reduce it, you have to prioritize your own well-being.
- Subtract some negative behaviors that are not serving you well during this time – whether it’s substance use, overeating, gambling, drinking, shopping, or another addictive behavior.
- Try mindfulness – to get started, download a free app, or check YouTube for some great mindfulness exercises.
- Take a deep breath. Then take another – sounds simple, but it can really help interrupt your body’s stress response.
When to talk with your doctor and ask for help
Sometimes, the self-care strategies outlined above aren’t enough to help. If you notice one or more of the following things, talk with your doctor:
- You’ve tried to help yourself using the tips above, and it hasn’t worked
- The overwhelm and stress has lasted for a few weeks
- It feels like it’s getting worse
- You want to stop using an unhealthy coping mechanism (e.g., substances, drinking, gambling) or do it less, and you find that you’re struggling to stop or cut back.
- You are experiencing more drama in your relationships (more avoidance or more confrontation)
Your doctor can help by listening to your concerns and offering some recommendations that may help. Your doctor might also suggest speaking with a specialist if your doctor thinks that would be helpful and can assist you with a referral.
We imagine admitting feeling overwhelmed to be a sign of weakness, but it takes real strength to admit vulnerability. You don’t have to go through this alone.
If you are dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety or chronic stress, a mental health professional can help you to develop the tools to help yourself. After meeting with your primary care physician they may suggest a referral to a mental health professional, or you may seek out care from a mental health professional directly.