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The Agony of Being Emotionally Overwhelmed

Agony Vol. Leaf BlowerKelly’s weekdays are filled with pain. She’s a caring friend; one who takes on the pain of the people in her life. Her college student niece whose heart is broken, the young wife next door who feels empty and hollow despite having the life she once dreamed of and the middle-aged friend whose life hasn’t met his expectations.

All their emotions, and those of others, stay with her in one way or another until she replenishes herself and lets them go. Being an emotionally sensitive person and an introvert, time to recoup through solitary activities like reading is crucial for her to live a contented life.

It’s the first chapter in her owner’s manual for herself.

Overwhelming Stress

For the past two weeks, Kelly’s been unusually stressed. On the first Sunday she noticed her elderly cat Pranks could barely walk. Just the day before Pranks had jumped up on the bathroom counter for treats, as usual, with no signs of illness. Worried, Kelly  rushed her cat to the vet.  The news was unexpected. Her cat was dying of kidney failure. It was time to let her go.

On Tuesday Kelly rushed a friend to the emergency room who was complaining of intense pain. The diagnosis was appendicitis and he was admitted to the hospital. Kelly  returned home at 3 AM, happy her friend was okay, but also sleep deprived and still grieving for her cat.

Lack of sleep, sadness and grieving added up to emotional vulnerability–every feeling she had was magnified by being worn down. Kelly wanted to hide, tell people to leave her alone and shut down emotionally to stop the pain.  She imagined wearing a t-shirt withe Leave Me Alone written in large letters across the front and back.

She wished she could be invisible. Even small, ordinary events like her phone dropping a call were irritating at this point. She pushed down her screams, though they still echoed loudly in her mind, and worried about losing control.

Judgments Add More Stress

Kelly judged herself as weak for not being able to get past the hurt and called herself lazy for not cleaning her house and being as productive as usual at work. She believed she needed to be hard on herself–how else would she change? But judgments add to emotional pain, just like going over and over the negative experience. When you think about a negative experience over and over you experience it many times instead of just once.

Kelly dove deeper into a black hole. She realized she used helping others as a way of  avoiding her own feelings. She’d pushed down too many feelings and now her numbing wasn’t working.


Most people have a point where they want to shut down emotionally and numb themselves. Emotionally sensitive people reach that point sooner, with less provocation, and stay overwhelmed longer than people who are not emotionally sensitive. Sometimes emotionally sensitive people attempt to stay numb most of the time in order to avoid the intensity of their feelings. That’s understandable but not helpful in the long run.

Numbing means feeling tired from fighting the feelings, feeling anxious and/or depressed,  plus experiencing long-term effects of stress. In addition, you will reach a point where numbing doesn’t work.

Numbing is not just about using drugs or alcohol. Some people numb out through withdrawing, shopping, staying busy, sleeping, talking constantly or helping others. Many people stay half-present by using multiple activities to avoid being present or experiencing their feelings. When they aren’t able to keep busy, they feel anxious and uncomfortable. But there comes a time when numbing doesn’t work. The feelings are too strong.

Suggestions to Consider

Comfort yourself.  Knowing ways to comfort yourself when in emotional pain is helpful. Many people reach out to others for comfort. For others, being with people at those times is too difficult.  They snap,  push others away, blame them, or just want them to feel bad too. For these people, time alone is not isolation but a way of rejuvenating themselves.

Other ways of comforting yourself might include listening to soothing music, wrapping in a blanket, connecting with your spiritual beliefs or holding a pet.

Stay mindful.  It’s a lot easier to be mindful of a beautiful beach or sunset than to be mindful of intense grief and loss. But noticing and feeling grief is part of emotional health. To not be mindful and experience painful feelings means the feelings could affect your health and may come out in destructive ways.

Take a break. Finding ways to comfort yourself and still feel the difficult emotions means the emotions can pass more quickly. At the same time, distracting periodically to give yourself breaks from the emotions is important too.

Facing emotions is different than soaking in them until they drain you dry. Once you’ve acknowledged and expressed your feelings, it’s not helpful to go over and over events in your head. That reignites the emotions. Try getting active. Push yourself to exercise or engage actively and completely in some activity like jogging or going for a walk. Exercise that gets your heart rate up will be most helpful.

Isolating or hiding for weeks is not healthy, but taking a short break to recoup your energy could be productive. The difference is that taking a brief break is purposeful and time-limited, and is not about avoidance.

Change the story you are telling yourself.  If you look at the emotionally difficult situations you have experienced, you may find a common theme or pattern. People often have hot buttons that create a lens through which they see the world. Maybe you tend to see yourself as constantly unlucky or a victim of uncaring people, or maybe you see yourself as incompetent. Perhaps you see yourself a responsible for circumstances that truly are not in your control or you tend to give too much power to others.

If you recognize a theme, then challenge yourself to see the situation in a different way.  Look for meaning in the experience or a lesson learned. You might also find strengths that you displayed in the situations that occurred.

Look for the parts of the experiences that were in your control and what you could have done differently. Sometimes, like in Kelly’s situation, the hurtful situations are not in your control.  Her story that created more suffering was about fighting against reality and thinking she was weak for grieving.

Sometimes you may notice repetitive behaviors that you could change. Are you not saying no when you need to? Are you offering help too often or jumping into relationships too quickly?

Accept Grief and Loss As Normal.  Sometimes emotionally sensitive people become reactive to their own emotions. Feeling any painful emotion scares them, because they have years of experience with the difficulty of managing intense emotions. Accepting loss as a normal part of life that everyone experiences at some point is part of not fighting against reality. Grieving and feeling hurt and disappointment are part of being human.

Remember that emotions pass. Even though it may seem that some feelings will never fade, time does help. Emotions pass with time and will pass more quickly if we accept them and don’t fuel them.


Note to Readers: Your responses to the survey about living with emotional sensitivity are terrific. I am grateful so many of you have contributed. The more people who respond, the more information we will have to educate ourselves and others. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Instant Vantage

The Agony of Being Emotionally Overwhelmed

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). The Agony of Being Emotionally Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2019, from


Last updated: 24 May 2012
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