(Reading Time: 10 Minutes)
My research into the topic of overwhelm has, to be honest, been somewhat overwhelming itself! There is so much guidance and advice surrounding the topics of stress and burnout that it’s hard to know where to begin. So, let’s start simple.
- Understanding What’s Going On: What is Overwhelm?
- Overwhelmed: A Definition
- Chronic Overwhelm
- Overwhelmed by Everyday Life
- So, Why Are So Many Of Us Overwhelmed?
- The Impact Of Being Overwhelmed
- How to Recognise the Symptoms of Being Overwhelmed
- So, What Next?
- Further Reading
Understanding What’s Going On: What is Overwhelm?
Overwhelm is a manifestation of stress.
In a nutshell, there is no one simple definition of what stress means. Hilly Janes, in her article on the definition of stress What is stress? What’s the definition of stress?, states that this is partly due to the fact that it can refer to both the cause of the stress (the events or circumstances) and our consequent reactions to it. In addition, there is no one common cause. We all find different things stressful.
Over the years much scientific effort has been exercised in the study of stress, its causes (stressors), and manifestations. Hungarian-born endocrinologist Hans Selye first explored the concept of stress, originally known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), as he investigated the way that organisms responded to differencing demands of both a positive and negative nature. Seyle’s work on stress yielded an entirely new field of medical and psychological research which continues with new advancements to this day.
Selye devised the theory of ‘good’ stress, known as ‘eustress’. Eustress is seen as a motivator, giving us a sense of success and contentment. Put simply, eustress is the positive response we make to a challenge that we feel able to cope with or motivated or excited by – such as starting a new job, having a child, or speaking in public.
Ever heard the phrase ‘I work better under pressure/stress’? Well, that’s because these people are referring to eustress and our natural positive reaction to it.
Again, as with any form of stress, individuals experience eustress for vastly differing reasons. More about eustress can be found here.
Seyle also coined and explored the concept of ‘distress’, bad stress, and thus the opposite of eustress. He noted that the impact of distress was far greater and more damaging on the human body and psyche than the good caused by eustress.
Seyle also found that the approach was taken by individuals as a response to their distress often had vastly differing outcomes. This was further investigated by renowned psychologist Richard Lazarus who concluded that personal perception and evaluation was a critical determinant in this. In other words – if you think you can cope, you usually can and vice versa.
In this article, we are going to explore the manifestation of stress that many people refer to as ‘overwhelm’.
A Google search on the keyword ‘overwhelm’ initially reveals a plethora of definitions and very little upfront on overwhelm as a concept or condition. As a 42-year-old working mum, it’s a word I hear often – both from my own mouth and that of my peers. In fact, friends and colleagues without dependents will often tell me that they feel this way, and rationalize its cause to be the pace of life in the modern world. Anyone of us, in any situation, can feel overwhelmed.
As with stress, the concept of overwhelm can mean different things for many people. Despite the common adoption of this term into the lexicon of busy people, clear scientific or medical classification is scant, and there is no clear definition that places ‘overwhelm’ at a particular point on a stress scale.
For the purposes of this article we are referring to ‘overwhelm’ as:
An emotional state in which you are struggling to cope with or deal with your current situation. This state is often characterized by feelings of:
- being buried
These feelings are usually accompanied by issues of volume i.e. that there is simply too much going on to cope with, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Being overwhelmed is a deep emotional response to countless thoughts and experiences.
This article will focus on developing your understanding of the symptoms of this kind of overwhelm and its sister article will suggest some strategies in order to deal with the issue.
For some people, their concept of ‘overwhelm’ is much more serious and can leave them asking much deeper questions of themselves. It is critical that these people seek appropriate advice, guidance, and support from a qualified medical professional who is trained to give the support needed. This article is not intended for people in a chronic state of overwhelm. This very deep-seated feeling of overwhelm can be a common symptom of anxiety and requires specialist support.
Overwhelmed by Everyday Life
Most people can remember a point in their life (it may even be now) when one or more of the following occurred. We…
- felt nervous and uncertain about how we were going to everything done that we needed to.
- had a deadline looming and we were not sure how we were going to meet it. We were struggling with our productivity. Time was passing by at a rapid rate not matched by the positive production of work.
- had that feeling that we had spread ourselves too thinly and try to be ‘everything’ to ‘everyone’. We seem unable to say ‘no’.
- feel controlled by other factors (other people, job, life, etc.), and are being washed down the river without any control. We have no say in where we are going or how fast we get there.
When people say that they feel ‘overwhelmed’ they will often follow this up with ‘I am drowning …..’. That feeling of struggling to keep your head above water or being trapped.
We often feel that there is no time to catch our breath and have an abiding sense of fear that, at any point, our lives could become unraveled. Like sitting on a cliff edge that you could fall off at any moment.
So why are so many of us Overwhelmed?
For starters, the pace of modern society, technology, and automation has a lot to answer for. The speed at which we live our lives is remarkable when compared to human existence only 50 years ago. The instantaneous nature of email and the uprising of the mobile phone means that everything can happen at break-neck speed. We often see a rebellion to this as we see more people opting out of the rat race for a life ‘off-grid’.
Busy people also tend to fast-forward their lives. We count the days to the weekend or the nearest holiday. We wish our lives away. Ambition and the challenges and pressures of existence in modern society – a constant striving to achieve, do the best by our families and up-size the house – all add to the pressure.
So many of us yearn for simple contentment and to be unencumbered but feel unable to achieve this as a result of the obstructions of daily existence and survival in modern society.
Some scientists suggest that the feeling of overwhelm is more prevalent in some groups, such as working parents, although it is not an uncommon feeling. Most people, no matter how short-lived, will feel this way at some point in their lives and it can be triggered at any time.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist, states:
“One causal factor may be multiple significant life issues, challenges or transitions occurring in rapid order. Another related factor might be a lack of coping resources, such as supportive, caring friends, families, or communities; rewarding involvements outside of work-life; appropriate self-care or stress management skills; or, sometimes, a lack of a sense of overarching meaning or purpose in one’s life.
Often there is a powerful ‘cocktail’ of stressors and powerful emotions that lead to the subjective sense of being overwhelmed…. There is often a powerful unconscious component to an overwhelmed state.”
Common causes of issues that may lead to emotional overwhelm include:
- Underlying physical or mental health conditions;
- Issues in relationships;
- Demands from occupation or career;
- Money troubles;
- Life transitions, such as buying a house, having a baby, or looking after an elderly parent;
- Death of a loved one;
- Insufficient time to complete tasks or rest;
- Sleep deprivation;
- Poor diet; or,
- Personal history of trauma.
What is critical to note here is that overwhelm can happen to any of us and it is NOT a sign of weakness.
The impact of being Overwhelmed
It is a simple fact of life that we all need an element of stress to be able to survive. At the end of the day, it’s our innate response that will protect us when we are in danger – even without thinking about it. But too much stress and overwhelm is not a good thing.
The consequences of living in a constantly heightened state of stress can be dramatic. In addition, being constantly overwhelmed has a significant impact on your cognitive functioning. It is a fact that your thinking skills will be slower and impaired when under stress. Have you ever wondered why you can’t remember things when you were overwhelmed, stressed, or in a pressured situation?
As we have already ascertained, productivity when in a stress mode is dramatically reduced. It is vital therefore to tackle the sources of our stress swiftly, to stop the overwhelm and, furthermore, to prevent this escalating as you become further behind.
The danger with overwhelm is that we can live with it rumbling on in the background for years until finally, it catches up with us. In this circumstance, a significant event may trigger such a strong reaction within us that our already depleted reserves don’t have enough to draw on.
The good news here is that there is lots that can be done. More of that shortly.
How to Recognise the Symptoms of Being Overwhelmed
No two people will have the same symptoms when experiencing overwhelm. However, there are certain common feelings that many of us will be able to identify with. Many of these are inter-woven. These are just some examples and this is not an exhaustive list.
1. Your sleep changes. You may…
- struggle to sleep.
- sleep more than normal.
- be restless when you are trying to get to sleep. Your mind ‘whirrs’.
- find yourself constantly trying to fight off the urge to go to sleep as you are tired from a lack of sleep!
2. You lose your sense of perspective
- You often see sleep as a waste of time as there is so much stuff that you can be doing instead (Although your productivity rate is very inefficient). But you are constantly tired.
- You over-react to situations. You can be emotional, cold or highly-strung. People are wary in your presence.
- Little things tip you over the edge. You are prone to great swings in emotion.
- You dread doing things. But you do them, after some resistance, because you must.
- You cannot say ‘no’ – because you are afraid of missing out or because you don’t know if this is important or not because you don’t have the time to find out!
- You cannot say ‘no’ because you are fearful that the one thing you say ‘no’ to might just be the one thing that would change our life!
- Everything is ‘urgent’ and must be done ‘now’.
- In our mind’s eye, everything will be better tomorrow, next week, next school term, next month, etc.
- You have a growing sense of a background fear. There is a ‘what if’ or ‘or else’ voice inside you. You are fearful that everything has dramatic consequences that can ruin your life.
3. You are constantly tired. You cannot get ‘on top of it’
- Your mind is in a heightened state of activity all the time.
- You feel constantly exhausted, even after a good few hours of sleep.
- You lack energy.
- You’re exhausted by the fact that you are unable to focus on one thing.
4. You constantly multi-task and procrastinate. You…
- flit from one thing to another.
- are characterized by being busy all the time, yet you are not productive.
- are unable to focus on one thing at once. You try and keep all the plates spinning but you don’t really know why you are doing it. The act of keeping everything going becomes more important than the reason why you are doing things in the first place! You cannot see that it is better to spin fewer plates well.
- subconsciously seek distractions.
- struggle to make meaningful decisions. You make poor decisions because you lack clarity. You change your mind often and with ease – although this provides added stress and worry.
- are usually late for things.
- are unable to relax and ‘do nothing’.
5. You find very few things good fun, you don’t have time for fun anyway. You…
- are too tired and busy to enjoy things.
- lose the sense of pleasure in the simple things in life.
- have no sense of what is personally important to you. You have lost this.
- struggle to take a break from the grind even for the most important things in life.
- live for the future. You don’t live for the now. You miss the fact that your life is passing you by. While you exist – you don’t live.
6. Your attitude towards food may change
- Some people overeat, some people under eat.
7. Your self-esteem plummets
- You think that you do nothing well.
- You are frequently self-critical and beat yourself up emotionally.
- Because your mind is whirring and working at 5 times its normal speed, you want answers ‘now’. Because change will take the time you give up on the idea of change. You love the idea of it, but new initiatives are always short-lived because everything is urgent, and you don’t get an immediate result.
- You feel guilty. For everything and anything!
- You worry and have doubts
8. The control freak turns into a monster
- You feel out of control.
- You can’t predict what will happen and you struggle to cope with this.
- As you struggle to control everything the control freak within becomes unrelenting.
- You cannot delegate or ask others to do things for you because it’s better, quicker and easier to do them yourself and it all needs to be ‘right’.
- Your expectations become unrealistic.
So, what next?
As Seyle and Lazarus discovered, and as outlined at the beginning of this article, the solution starts with us and our perspective on our issues.
Quite simply, our approach to the matter can be the deciding factor between whether we can cope or not and can make things harder than they need to be.
Many overwhelmed people feel guilty or like a failure because they see themselves as not able to cope with life when others seemingly can. Let’s be honest here – we NEVER get a true and honest view of the lives of others. Do not compare yourself because you do not know their story. Everyone at some point in their life will have a sense of overwhelm – it is normal, and it is not a sign of weakness. Thus, the first action is to forgive yourself and admit that you have an issue.
The second stage is to make that conscious decision that you simply do not want to live in this heightened state any longer. Change comes with the first step – make the decision.
Now head on over Part 2 – How to Take Decisive Action to Conquer Overwhelm.
As always, we are interested to hear your thoughts. How did reading this article make you feel?
Let us know your thoughts below. Your observations may inspire someone else who needs help to act.
Further Reading: Interested to Find Out More?
Have a look at these articles from across the Web:
Disclaimer – This article is not intended to be a replacement to professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or therapy. I am not a medical professional. If you have any concerns about your physical or mental health and/or wellbeing you must always consult with your doctor or other appropriate health care professional