Freedom From Emotional Overwhelm Part 1

Written by on September 2, 2020 in Emotional Mastery

If I were to ask what the most common cause of emotional overwhelm is, most people would say too many responsibilities or too much work to do.

On the surface that makes sense, and there’s no question that the pressures we feel from our responsibilities can weigh heavily on us.

However, the conditions we commonly associate with overwhelm, such as too much work, are rarely the source of our discomfort, but symptoms of underlying issues.

You can just as easily experience feelings of overwhelm when you have nothing to do, or boredom when you are up to your eyeballs in work.

This is the first article in a 2-part series on how to free yourself from emotional overwhelm.

Today we’ll lay a foundation by exploring common triggers, and outline a few short-term coping strategies to clear emotional clutter.

Next week we’ll work on understanding what drives us to experience overwhelm so you can begin to create a mental and emotional shift away from underlying patterns for good.

Common Causes of Overwhelm

Having too much to do may be the most familiar trigger, but it is just one of many conditions that contribute to feelings of overwhelm.

The following is a list of common causes, some will be familiar, others may surprise you.

  • Relationship issues.
  • Physical or mental health worries.
  • A demanding job.
  • Prolonged uncertainty.
  • Poor nutrition or food insecurity.
  • Financial distress and instability.
  • Significant life changes.
  • Time constraints.
  • Death of a loved one.
  • Personal traumas such as abuse.
  • Habitual lack of sleep.

Between COVID-19, economic turmoil, and political and social unrest, it’s pretty easy to check off at least half a dozen items on this list that have become all too common in our lives.

So, first things first.

If you’ve experienced feelings of overwhelm during this time of ongoing disruption and uncertainty, there is nothing wrong with you.

This is not the time to beat yourself up over falling short of the superwoman or man you normally strive to show to the world.

Overwhelm often leads to feelings of inadequacy and failure, so it’s extra important during these challenging times to be kind to yourself and push back against critical self-talk.

Regain a Sense of Control

Overwhelm can feel like a large wave crashing into you, completely overcoming your mind and emotions.

Fortunately, there are a few practical steps you can take to calm frayed nerves and regain a sense of control.

Push Pause

It can be difficult to think and act rationally when you’re feeling overwhelmed, so no matter how busy you are, you need to make time – even 15 minutes – to step back, push pause, and calm your mind.

And, by stepping back, I don’t mean curling up with your smartphone to scroll through your Twitter feed.

It may feel comforting to do something mindless, but the information that you take in becomes more noise that further clutters your already overwhelmed state of mind.

Unplug and step away.

Take a walk around the block, get out of the office for a cup of coffee, listen to music, meditate, go for a short drive.

Pushing pause will give you a chance to gain some clarity and perspective so you can look at your life and work from a distance.

Clear the Clutter

Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes and write down everything that is on your mind – don’t analyze it or trying to figure it out at this point – just get it out of your head and onto paper.

Not all mental clutter has to do with problems or people issues, sometimes we just spread ourselves too thin (multi-task much?), or mentally store too many bits and pieces of information.

Once you get your thoughts on paper it will be much easier to sort through what needs your attention and what needs to be dumped.

Dump the Unnecessary Stuff

This is where you’re going to have to do a bit of soul searching.

How many things are on your list that aren’t really your responsibility, but you’ve convinced yourself you should do them?

What about things you have no control over, no one else can do it as well as you, or commitments that no longer serve you?

Maybe you can’t bring yourself to say ‘no’ even when you want to, either because you dread disappointing someone or because being busy and doing for others makes you feel needed.

It’s human nature for us not to want to wave the white flag of surrender, but sometimes you need to stop trying to be all things to all people in your life.

The more uncomfortable this exercise is, the more you need to do it.


Once you have cleared away whatever doesn’t belong on your list, the next task is to prioritize the remaining issues.

Some recommend dealing with the easy stuff first to give yourself a few wins so you can better think about what to do with the more complicated issues.

The problem is that the tough stuff ends up parked in our minds in the first place because we either don’t want or know how to deal with them.

Planning for that great vacation you’re going to take when life finally returns to normal may give you a short-term sense of satisfaction, but it won’t give you the mental and emotional freedom the same way doing the hard stuff will.

Stuff like mustering the nerve to call your credit card company to negotiate a better interest rate or asking for an extension until you can make a payment.

The point is that to find relief right now you need to face the things that are causing you the most stress.

Take the First Step

All the planning in the world won’t help if you don’t take action.

If the first challenge on your list feels too big to manage, break it down into small (tiny) actionable steps if it helps, but start chipping away at it any way you can.

As difficult as it may be to take that first couple of steps, you will be amazed at how much better you feel after you make some progress.  

You might assume you feel overwhelmed because you have too much on your to-do list. But feeling overwhelmed is a state of mind, not a condition.

The Takeaway

We experience emotional overwhelm when we feel conditions are too great for us to manage.

While the most familiar sources of overwhelm may be too much work or responsibility, these are symptoms of underlying issues.  

Regardless of the cause, it’s impossible to simply tell yourself to not feel the way you feel, nor should you.

The only thing you can control is how you respond to your feelings.

With the help of a few practical strategies, you can regain a sense of calm so you can begin taking action to improve the situation.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll focus on identifying the real source of emotional overwhelm and how you can reclaim your power. 

Related reading:
Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach, and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies, and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living Start Here.

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