Updated on 2/10/2022

When you experience emotional overwhelm, it can feel all-consuming. Many people will end up feeling overwhelmed at some point in their lives. It entails being completely overcome by an unruly and intense emotion that something is too challenging to manage and overcome. 

When confronted with being overwhelmed, it can be difficult to think and act rationally, and even function in a normal way. Needless to say, the experience of this overwhelmed feeling is uncomfortable and the causes and effects can span across your personal and professional life.

In this article, we’ll discuss what can cause you to feel overwhelmed, how to recognize it, and things you can do to prevent or stop it.

What Causes Emotional Overwhelm?

When a person believes the stressors are far too great to manage, they become overwhelmed — which means that any number of causes are possible.

What it means to be overwhelmed

Emotional overwhelm entails more than being stressed. By definition being emotionally overwhelmed means to be completely submerged by your thoughts and emotions about all of life’s current problems, to the point where you lack productivity and feel frozen or paralyzed. 

Compare the feeling of being overwhelmed to being submerged after a rough wave. It’s a scary experience, you may not know which way is up or what way to swim, you may feel stunned and unable to react. You may be unable to think or act rationally or functionally and emotional overwhelm may impact your relationships or professional life. 

Common reasons for feeling overwhelmed

Whether brought on by exceptionally stressful time at work, a traumatic personal experience like losing a loved one, or another inciting factor, emotional overwhelm can occur for a short burst of time or over a much longer period. Sometimes, a series of hardships and challenges occurring in rapid succession can trigger someone to feel overcome by unwieldy emotions. Common experiences that can lead to emotional overwhelm can include:

Symptoms of Feeling Overwhelmed

When a person is experiencing an overwhelming feeling, it can take shape in a variety of ways. In each instance, a person is generally more likely to be overwhelmed by negative emotions — anger, fear, anxiety, or guilt — and it is often difficult to understand and verbalize the exact source of the stress. The reason a person’s physiology responds so strongly to these negative feelings is the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” When you begin to feel overwhelmed, cortisol surges through your body and leaves you overloaded with intense emotion and anxiety. At the same time, our serotonin stores, the chemical that helps our bodies fight off depression and anxiety, start to deplete. 

This combination causes the intense feeling of total despair associated with being overwhelmed. Often, overwhelm is as uncomfortable as it is uncontrollable. It rears its head as anxiety, anger, or significant irritability and worry. Doubt and helplessness also make their way into a person’s normal thought process. Physically, it can manifest when a person lashes out verbally, cries, or has a panic attack. These negative feelings are often paired with a quickened heartbeat, perspiration, shortness of breath, or even chest pain.

Why we cry when we’re overwhelmed

Some people report crying when feeling overwhelmed. It is ok to cry! Everyone does it, but some more than others. A study showed that women cry 30-64 times a year, while men cry 5-17 times per year. However, this gender difference highlights how crying has been unfairly stigmatized for men to signify a sign of weakness. Therefore, these results are likely inaccurately reported. 

Crying is a healthy way to express our inner emotions, it even helps us to better understand ourselves. It has many positive effects and can decrease feelings of stress, often leaving us with a cathartic feeling. You should speak to your doctor if you feel like you cry an inordinate amount, that you’re inconsolable, or if crying interferes with your daily life. If that is the case, crying might be indicative of an underlying mood disorder such as depression, or another mental health condition like anxiety.

How to Prevent & Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

No matter the reason, if you feel the onset of overwhelm, there are some ways to help address the emotions both on your own and by leveraging outside support.

1. Accept the anxious feelings

Fighting off all-consuming emotions likely doesn’t do much to ease them in a particularly anxious moment. Try to remember that anxiety, to a certain degree, is a “normal” part of the human experience and use acceptance as a tool to work through those uncomfortable feelings (when possible). 

“It is important to remember that you have the capacity to ride these waves of feelings – they have a beginning, a middle and an end, and fighting our feelings will not help. I like to talk with my clients about picturing riding the waves at the beach; while you might not end up right in front of your beach chair and towel, once you ride the wave of that feeling, you will end up back on the beach.”

Talkspace therapist Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

2. Reverse your overwhelmed thought processes

Feelings of unpredictability and complete despair fuel overwhelm. Those negative  thoughts build up anxiety and can cause a person significant distress. Stop those damaging thoughts before they become habitual ruminations by honestly asking yourself if that way of thinking is unreasonable or unhelpful. At the same time, try to find alternative, more positive thoughts.

3. Take some deep breaths

There are plenty of grounding techniques you can use when feeling overwhelmed that involve deep breathing exercises. When you consciously try deep breathing, it triggers your body’s relaxation response and can come in handy during particularly stressful situations. Additionally, practicing yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm your body’s response to anxiety, as each exercise helps you to focus your breath.

“One thing that is particularly helpful is to practice these techniques when you are not feeling overwhelmed. These strategies are like building a muscle, and are easier to use the more you practice. I have found that when you practice grounding techniques in non stressful moments, they are much easier to use when you need them in times of stress and intense emotion. While it may seem simple, even a short time of focused breathing can have a significant impact on how you are feeling and thinking.”

Talkspace therapist Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

4. Be in the moment

If your thinking is focused on what the future holds — whether in a few minutes or several years down the road — it may make you more susceptible to becoming overwhelmed. Think about one moment, task, and experience at a time, in the present moment, to help remove the possibility of uncontrollable thoughts that may or may not come about.

5. Know your resources

Besides breathing exercises and meditation techniques to help prevent overwhelm, there is plenty of scientific research available about how stress and anxiety impact our cognitive abilities. To strengthen your ability to manage those feelings, discover what studies and recommendations resonate with you by using online search tools or online therapy.

How Therapy Can Help When Feeling Overwhelmed

When you are not able to prevent overwhelming thoughts or feelings, therapy is a helpful way to address your response to them. In therapy, a qualified mental health professional is able to help you sort through the issues causing your stress or anxiety and better understand its root causes. When you gain a solid understanding of what stressors and stressful situations trigger this uncomfortable mental state, it helps cultivate a calmer frame of mind in the future. 

When looking for the right type of therapy to manage overwhelming experiences, there are different types of practices to consider: 

  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Centering techniques (to help teach people to soothe themselves during times of distress)
  • Journal therapy 
  • Physical exercise

While there is no way to determine what life has in store at any given moment, there are ways to build up the mental strength to better take on life’s challenges and build resiliency. When you take time to learn what triggers stress and anxious thoughts, you can better manage overwhelming experiences before they occur. With the right tools and hard work, you can help minimize the occurrence and impact of becoming overwhelmed.