Home » Blogs » Therapy That Works » Feeling Overwhelmed?

Feeling Overwhelmed?

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.

Happy Holidays!

Dr. Deibler


Photo available at 123RF

Feeling Overwhelmed?

Marla W. Deibler, PsyD

Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and nationally-recognized expert in anxiety disorders and the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, including trichotillomania and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding, and tic disorders. She is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia in New Jersey, an outpatient facility specialized in providing evaluation and evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies for these and other difficulties. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of OCD-NJ, the New Jersey affiliate of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). Dr. Deibler gained her formative clinical experiences at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Children’s National Medical Center, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. She gained specialized behavior therapy experience in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders at the nationally-recognized Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington. Dr. Deibler served as a clinician at the National Center for Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression. She also served as Director of Behavioral Sciences at the Temple University School of Dentistry and served on the clinical faculty at Temple University Schools of Medicine and Allied Health as well as Temple University Children’s Medical Center. Dr. Deibler has published scientific research in peer-reviewed journals and has presented clinical training seminars and research findings at national and international meetings. She has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show, A&E’s “Hoarders”, TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive”, CBS News, ABC News, FOX News, It’s Your Call with Lynn Doyle (CN8, Retirement TV), and CBS’s “Swift Justice with Nancy Grace”. She has been quoted by media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Connecticut Post, among others. Dr. Deibler holds licenses to practice psychology in New Jersey (Lic. No. 35S100438000) and Pennsylvania (Lic. No. PS0157790). She is an active member of the American Psychological Association, Trichotillomania Learning Center, International OCD Foundation, OCD-New Jersey, Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Dr. Deibler resides in suburban Philadelphia with her husband (who is also a psychologist) and three children.

2 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Deibler, M. (2012). Feeling Overwhelmed?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Dec 2012
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.