Feeling out of control and overwhelmed? 4 ways to deal with it

written by Peter White

Feeling out of control, stressed and overwhelmed? 4 ways to deal with it

Credit: Juliette Leufke

Jo, a natural therapies practitioner, says “I’m feeling overwhelmed by my business, by juggling single parenting and the responsibilities of running my small business. My to-do list keeps growing and I feel stressed that I can’t keep up. I feel anxious that my five-year-old son is not getting enough of my time. My life balance is non-existent and I feel out of control. It’s affecting my moods, my thinking. I’m more forgetful. I often feel overwhelmed.”

Can you relate to Jo? Work pressures, parenting responsibilities, financial strains, mental health issues can all be part of the daily strains of living in a fast-paced world, but when they become too much for too long, stress and overwhelm tend to result.

Work pressures, parenting responsibilities, financial strains, mental health issues can all be part of the daily strains of living in a fast-paced world, but when they become too much for too long, stress and overwhelm tend to result.

Feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to feeling overcome by anxiety, stress and other emotions and feelings that build up to a critical point. It can be a normal reaction to confronting difficult circumstances in your life. Most of us experience being overwhelmed at some point but what is critical for your wellbeing is to not become chronically overwhelmed and to recognise the situations and reasons that lead to it. More on that later.

Feeling overwhelmed can come from all sorts of directions, but it tends to be associated with anxiety and feeling out of control — or on the verge of being so — when faced with persistent stress, pressures and/or emotions. I’m referring to chronic or ongoing negative experiences of it rather than an immediate response to a confronting or emotional circumstance like a disaster or grief. At its worst, overwhelm can manifest as intense anxiety or a panic attack, with paralysing and physiological responses that may require medical attention. But, more commonly, being overwhelmed will lead to increased fatigue, burnout, brain fog, guilt, despair, powerlessness and feelings of doom.

Sources of overwhelm

Before identifying ways to prevent and manage your experience of being overwhelmed, I want to discuss how this experience manifests as well as the primary sources of overwhelm. I can bring my life experience and those of my clients to the table, as well as research into this commonest of mental challenges. But I’m sure you have your own experience of it, so let’s see how our understandings compare.

Let’s start with the sources of experiencing overwhelm. It usually arises slowly, camouflaged in the undergrowth of life’s busyness, intense emotions and/or chronic mundanity. It can be almost anything that causes you to feel overcome by stress, pressures and emotions. I’ve looked at what I’ve felt overwhelmed by — work to-do lists, financial struggle, single parenting, despair at the degraded and threatening state of the world, mundanity, anxiety — and identified three overlapping categories:

  1. Emotions and feelings, such as anger, resentment, loneliness, unrequited love, fears
  2. Mindscapes, such as stress, anxiety, depression, grief, ruminations
  3. Life situations, such as work stress, single parenting, unemployment, loneliness, chronic illness, pain, frustrations of old age

When I am feeling overwhelmed by something — stress, despair or finances, for example — I notice there tend to be three types of responses. First, it can be an intense or low-grade but ongoing emotion or feeling such as anxiety, irritability or sense of emptiness and/or heaviness. Second, my reactionary mind can be lost in the apparent cause of it and my mind is filled with endless mental chatter (rumination), negative fantasies and paralysing self-doubts. And, third, there is often a behavioural response such as feeling teary, increased inertia and frequent loss of temper.

I often meet all these three manifestations or responses to being overwhelmed with a proverbial shrug: “It is what it is. I can’t just stop doing what I have to do.” This dismissal is a sign of feeling helpless and/or being in denial, both of which lead to inaction or avoidance of dealing with the real issue behind overwhelm.

Why overwhelm is on the rise

But why are more and more people feeling overwhelmed with their lives? According to one survey on stress, anxiety, depression and wellbeing in Australia, conducted in 2015 by the Australian Psychological Association, 21 per cent of Australians reported moderate to severe levels of distress and around one in eight reported severe depression and anxiety symptoms that year. By far the biggest group reporting these were young adults (18–35 years).

In New Zealand, according to the Health Loss in New Zealand study on data 1990–2013, anxiety and depressive disorders were the second leading cause of health loss, accounting for 5.3 per cent of all health loss, behind only coronary heart disease. For women, they were the leading cause.

And the trend is getting worse. These stats indicate that a lot of people are experiencing distress, anxiety and depression at high levels and it’s likely that these mental health issues are associated with feeling overwhelmed.

It’s well known that constant stress, anxiety and depression lead to a range of inflammatory illnesses. Feeling overwhelmed by these can lead to all sorts of behavioural and health consequences. But, for many more people, feeling overwhelmed is more often about juggling too many activities and emotions, about being too stressed by busyness. Most of us don’t function at our best when constantly bouncing from one thought, one emotion, one activity to another. Many people are caught up in the belief that the busier they are, the more competent or more important they must be.

To be seen to be worthy of our perceived status or roles, we are driven to exhaustion and all too often experience, and accept, mental health problems.

I’m drawn to the insights of a writer on overwhelm: Brigid Schulte who, in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-one Has the Time, scrutinises why so many people feel overwhelmed. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, she points out one of the more common reasons for the rise in overwhelm: needing to be overly busy. “That’s when it hit me — how we sometimes create busyness in order to conform to this social ideal, that to be worthy is to be busy,” Schulte says. “I don’t say this to blame people. I do it, too. But the only way to change it, if we don’t like it, is to first be aware of it, be aware that our urge to conform, to be worthy, to be enough, drives us sometimes unconsciously.”

This is one of the “external” reasons that explain the increasing numbers of people experiencing burnout or chronic stress from being overwhelmed by busyness: societal expectations and pressures to conform and be strong and competent in all areas of living. It stems from the anxiety of living in our productivity-obsessed age of efficiencies, returns and work-rest-blurring technologies. We feel the pressures to conform to workplace expectations, which revolve around long work hours and after-hours work.

Apparently, in countries like Denmark, society looks down on people who work long hours because they are thought to be inefficient. Yet, here, we buy into — or feel forced into — accepting these expectations and create packed to-do lists in order to meet those expectations. This, of course, means we take on the task of juggling more and more between our overly compartmentalised roles and responsibilities. To be seen to be worthy of our perceived status or roles, we are driven to exhaustion and all too often experience, and accept, mental health problems.

This reason hints at the underlying belief systems that create the experience of overwhelm. The real reason why, for example, overwork may be overwhelming you is not so much that you need to pay the big mortgage or school fees or that there’s pressure from work. That may be a reason that’s easiest to blame, but the real underlying reasons could be:

Perhaps the real, unacknowledged despair arises from not so much being overwhelmed by work or worries or life experiences, but the sense of powerlessness to understand and let go of both the obvious causes and the hidden unconscious beliefs about yourself.

How to cope with overwhelm

In dealing with feeling overwhelmed, the first step is to acknowledge that you are, in fact, overwhelmed and know what is actually overwhelming you. People may feel overwhelmed but may not be able to acknowledge that it’s a problem or identify the real reason for it. I used to feel anxious, as a contract or project-based worker, about a lack of certainty surrounding work gigs and therefore income. This state was habitual and just the “norm” — it came with the territory — so I put up with the anxiety and irritability that feeling overwhelmed evoked (I must not have been easy company for my partner!). It had health consequences and I finally realised I needed an effective coping strategy to better deal with it.

Whatever the source of the overwhelm you experience, the solution is definitely not to do more of the same. Neither is the solution to worry about your stress levels nor see the experience as normal and reasonable. The solution is to identify the most relevant and effective tools and techniques — coping strategies — to deal with both the underlying source (beliefs, repressed emotions, self-identity, trauma) and the external stress/pressures/circumstances that are evoking your chronic state of overwhelm, and most likely stress and anxiety, too. Coping strategies are ways you can positively deal with stress and circumstances that threaten your wellbeing. These strategies can enhance your mental and emotional resilience, your capacity to adapt and deal with threats.

There are numerous ways to cope with overwhelm. I have tried the ones below and they all tend to be effective. Choosing one or more of them may depend on which is the most appropriate for your needs and interests, and you should seek appropriate advice. Here’s an overview of some common strategies:

  1. Cognitive-based approaches. These are based on controlling thoughts, especially unrealistic or unreasonable thoughts, or thoughts of uncontrollability and unpredictability. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself, especially self-criticism and thoughts that tend to lead to denial, inaction, inertia and the cycle of passive acceptance.
  2. Exercise-based approaches. These rely on distraction, embodied engagement and the release of neurotransmitters to relax the brain. Any activity that gets you out of your normal environment, raises your heart and breathing rate and helps you to interact with the world helps reduce overwhelming thoughts and feelings, and broadens perspective on your situation.
  3. Behavioural approaches. These involve practical actions you can take to distance yourself from the thoughts, feelings, emotions and circumstances that trigger the overwhelm. When you feel overcome, you can ring a friend, listen to inspiring or joyful music or write in your journal as a way to stop the anxiety getting out of control. Once feeling settled, then reflect on your experience of overwhelm and anxiety.
  4. Contemplative approaches. These use awareness-enhancing approaches such as meditation, mindfulness, self-compassion, yoga, tai chi and breathing techniques. They help you control limiting beliefs and concepts, calm the mind, reduce stress and develop a broader perspective on your sense of self and your relationship with your world and your perceptions of it.

As someone who loves nature and understands the benefits of mindfulness-based nature connection, I enjoy the latter strategy and might, for example, go for a mindful bushwalk or a nature connection session. I try to prevent anxiety-oriented overwhelm by regular yoga, gym sessions and meditation, as well as daily playtime with my five-year-old son.

Another factor not often recognised is the role our genes and their variants play in our predispositions regarding mental health and resilience. The genetic test I took as part of my wellness program revealed that I am at higher risk of diminished neurotransmitter (serotonin) regulation in my brain, a predisposition that potentially affects mood stability, stress response and other brain functions. I have modified my diet and supplement regime to reduce these risks.

The bottom line is I know I must and can exert some control over managing my mental health, specifically the negative thinking and constricting feelings associated with overwhelm.

Over to you

Whichever pathway you pursue in seeking to resolve your feelings of being overwhelmed, whatever form it takes and whichever the source and its manifestation, you need to commit to the path that’s best for you. You don’t need to experience chronic overwhelm. It may be a normal response to an event or stressor, but it’s important to ask questions about those unconscious drives, assumptions and yearnings that created the overwhelm in the first place. The core feeling and assumption is that you are not in control and that overwhelm is the only response. It isn’t.

The pathway to inner and outer balance, which overwhelm serves to motivate us toward, can, however, be obvious or camouflaged. So it’s best to get some help from therapists who can guide you to a pathway of resolution.

[Overwhelm] may be a normal response to an event or stressor, but it’s important to ask questions about those unconscious drives, assumptions and yearnings that created your suffering in the first place.

Writing this brings to mind a conversation I had with a man who was complaining about being overwhelmed and stressed by too much to do and not enough time to fit it all in. He said, “I constantly feel overwhelmed with jobs and meetings and dealing with colleagues — busy, busy, busy! Not enough time and yet I keep taking more on. Am I nuts? I know I need to find some balance, yet I keep putting it off. It feels like a downward spiral. My health and relationships are suffering.”

What I said to him is what I will leave you with. You may have a lot on your plate at the moment, but what are your beliefs around feeling overwhelmed? What is that inner self saying to you about this? That being overwhelmed in this way means you’re worthier? What is driving your experience of overwhelm from the inside, and what do you need to do to release that overwhelm to become calm, present and grounded in your truth?


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Peter White

Peter White’s book In the Presence of Nature: A Guide for Connecting and Healing in a Climate of Change is available at your local bookstore and online bookstores. W: natureconnect.com.au