We’ve all been there. Sometimes, demands on us exceed our ability to cope and we reach a point of feeling overwhelmed. We feel completely overcome in mind and/or emotion and feel ill-equipped to cope.
When we are faced with stressors, good (eustress) or bad (distress), we experience physiological, emotional, and cognitive arousal. Activating chemicals, such as endorphins, cortisol, and adrenalin, are released in order to help us rise to the challenge of meeting the demands of these stressors so that we may effectively manage them and reduce the arousal or tension we are experiencing. This state of arousal is known as the fight-or-flight response. Essentially, it is the sympathetic branch of our nervous system (our alarm system) taking control from our parasympathetic branch (our state of calm and homeostasis).
Events that trigger these overwhelming feelings differ from person to person. For example, we may feel overwhelmed by items on our “to-do list,” if we think we cannot accomplish them. Or, we may feel overwhelmed by emotionally evocative events, such as a birth, wedding, death, or divorce. Any single stressor or a number of stressors concurrently that tax our ability to cope may cause us to feel overwhelmed.
Overwhelm may manifest itself as experiencing intense emotion (i.e., anxiety, depression, irritability, anger), maladaptive thought processes (i.e., worry, rumination, unhelpful thoughts, doubt, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt), and behavior change (i.e., lashing out, crying, panic attack).
Potential consequences of acute or chronic stress and feeling overwhelmed include anxiety, depression, irritability, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, interpersonal strain, headache, gastrointestinal distress, and increased vulnerability to medical as well as psychiatric illness.
Those who have an internal locus of control (belief that they have control over that which affects them), those who have strong coping skills, those who have strong social support, those who have greater cognitive flexibility, problem-solving skills, and adaptability are less likely to feel overwhelmed. Those who have belief systems that maintain maladaptive, unhelpful thought processes are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and overwhelm.
Feeling overwhelmed? Try some of these strategies:
1. Practice acceptance – Some degree of anxiety is “normal”, healthy, and motivating. It is what helps us get to appointments on time. It’s “normal” to experience some degree of anxiety when stressors are unfamiliar, unpredictable, and/or imminent. Anxiety, in itself, feels bad, but is not harmful and always passes. Think of it like a wave of the ocean; allow it to come in and ride it out.
2. Change your thoughts – We all have moments in which we increase our own anxiety by worrying about that which we cannot completely control. These thoughts are often unrealistic, inaccurate, or to some extent, unreasonable. Catch those thoughts, think about them and how they affect you, and change them to more helpful, adaptive thoughts.
3. Be in the “now” – Too much focus on worrying about what may or may not come and you will not be able to enjoy the present moment. So, schedule some time to plan for what is to come, but take in all that is your present moment and enjoy the present.
4. Take a deep breath – Practicing diaphragmatic breathing or other relaxation-inducing practice (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery exercises, tai chi, yoga) can reduce stress by helping to encourage the relaxation response.
5. Behavioral activation – Take action. Engage in an activity you may enjoy, such as, taking a walk, listening to music, reading a book). Engage in problem-solving (In what ways might you address the stressors that are causing these feelings?)
With the end of the year approaching, it is common to experience anxiety. Whether it is a number of family obligations, preparing for winter holidays, or the frustration of circling around the mall parking lot on Christmas eve trying desperately to find a spot, acknowledge your stress and take steps to effectively cope.
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Last reviewed: 24 Dec 2012