We’re all familiar with the sensation of being overwhelmed: a thousand thoughts and tasks circling around in your brain, and not a single one feels achievable. There’s nothing pleasant — or productive — about it.
Being overwhelmed is often characterized by depletion, exhaustion, and even a sense of futility, says Anthony P. DeMaria, PhD, a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist. and associate director of adult ambulatory psychiatry at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West Hospitals in New York City.
But fatigue is far from the only physical symptom. “[Stress] take a toll on the body, and if prolonged can negatively impact physical health,” says Dr. DeMaria.
Here’s why: your body responds to stressful situations (like feeling overwhelmed) by producing more cortisol — way more. High levels of this stress hormone over an extended period can lead to an increase in your blood pressure, weight gain, immune system suppression, and a loss of muscle mass and calcium in your bones, he explains.
Your body is essentially waving a white flag of surrender. But if being overwhelmed feels so wretched, why is the sensation so common? We spoke with therapists to uncover what’s behind feeling overwhelmed and get tips for how to break free from the burnout spiral.
Why You Feel So Overwhelmed
Feeling overwhelmed is a clue that you don’t have sufficient boundaries in place, says Dori Gatter, PsyD, LPC, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist. “There’s not enough self-care happening. You’ve piled too much on,” she says. Without boundaries, it’s easy to wind up with too many commitments in not enough time — a surefire recipe for becoming overwhelmed.
Another major factor: fear of the future. “A lot of times what accelerates our feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed is thinking too far into the future and anticipating what’s going to happen,” says Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch.” It’s easy to focus on our uncertainty about how things will play out and the unpredictability that lies ahead, she says.
And, there’s no discounting the role of our own response to stressors in the overwhelm build-up. Yes, some events and experiences are objectively stressful, says Dr. DeMaria (think: a move, a big work project, or planning a holiday with the in-laws). But it’s “the mental processes that take place when we are experiencing adverse events or circumstances” that he says can amplify stress and lead to feeling overwhelmed.
How to Stop the Cycle
One simple way to feel better? Admit it’s happening. “Labeling sometimes gives us a sense of control,” says Dr. Dorfman. Here are six more smart strategies to help you transition from overwhelmed to plain ol’ whelmed (or avoid the feeling in the first place).
1. Anticipate it.
How can you avoid that downward spiral? Plan ahead. If you know you have a busy few months ahead, create a strategy for how to handle it beforehand, recommends Dr. DeMaria. Just make sure not to spend this anticipatory time ruminating on the many ways things can wrong, cautions Dr. DeMaria. Instead, visualize success and figure out the steps required to achieve it, he says. And don’t forget to brainstorm ideas for navigating obstacles that may arise.
You should also avoid sabotaging yourself. It’s important to maintain healthy boundaries, says Dr. DeMaria. If you’re stretched thin, don’t sign up to host a dinner party the evening before a big presentation, he says. “We need to be our own advocates, and learn to manage others’ expectations of us, to avoid being overwhelmed,” says Dr. DeMaria.
2. Take a deep breath.
Remember that surge of cortisol? It leads to your body being in a physiologically heightened state, says Dr. Dorfman. So tactics that calm your body down — like doing the above deep breathing exercise, or spending 20 minutes exercising — will lower your heart rate, leave you feeling centered and counteract the cortisol, she says.
3. Break it down.
We all have times when our to-do list is daunting: That week leading up to Thanksgiving, say, or the close of the fiscal year at the office. To gain control and feel productive instead of inundated, break each giant task into very manageable, incremental steps, suggests Dr. Dorfman. “Oftentimes, that releases the paralysis,” says Dr. Dorfman.
4. Remember the past.
Here’s a tactic Dr. Dorfman uses a lot with patients: Reflect on a time previously when you’ve felt overwhelmed and then gotten past all your anxiety. This can be really reassuring. “You can preempt spiraling when you recall those instances when you were able to master the stress,” says Dr. Dorfman.
5. Disrupt your thoughts.
Engaging in catastrophic thinking tightens that overwhelmed feeling, notes Dr. Dorfman. Get in the habit of engaging in positive self-talk. “Saying ‘we will get through this,’ provides much more comfort and relief than saying, ‘we are doomed,’” points out Dr. DeMaria. Thinking rationally (instead of fixating on bad outcomes) makes it easier to address stressors and effectively problem-solve, says Dr. Dorfman.
6. Phone a friend.
Maybe you’re under too much pressure to think of a comforting moment from the past or practice positive self-talk. If none of these other tactics work, reach out for help. Call your BFF. A friend that knows you well can remind you of other times when you’ve had these same feelings and gotten through the moment, says Dr. Dorfman. Friends can also serve as affirming cheerleaders, she adds.