Emotional overwhelm, or a state of being beset by intense emotion that is difficult to manage, can often affect a person's ability to think and act rationally or perform in an efficient and functional manner. A state of emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress at home or work, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more. If a state of emotional overwhelm persists for an extended period of time, the services of a mental health professional may help one cope.

Causes of Emotional Overwhelm

Many people will experience a state of emotional overwhelm at some point in their lives. When multiple challenges occur in rapid succession or when coping skills are insufficient, an individual may end up feeling overwhelmed. The level of stress and the amount of support a person has are often significant factors in whether or not a person feels overwhelmed by emotions. Factors that may help protect against feelings of overwhelm include supportive friends and family, rewarding hobbies, adequate self-care, and stress management skills such as meditation.

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The causes of emotional overwhelm vary. After a fight with a friend, for example, one person may not worry over the matter at all, believing that the issue will resolve itself eventually. Another person may experience significant sadness and anxiety, fear the friendship is over, and worry that he or she was the one at fault. Experiencing these emotions all at once may lead to overwhelm.

Common causes of issues that may lead to emotional overwhelm include:

Although any single issue may be enough to overload a person's emotions, emotional overwhelm can often occur when a person experiences multiple stressors and conflicting emotions at one time.

Symptoms of Emotional Overwhelm

A person is most likely to be overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as extreme sadness, persistent anger, fear, anxiety, or guilt. Emotional overwhelm may also be an extension of psychological concerns such as anxiety or depression.

A person who is emotionally overwhelmed may become irritable or depressed, experience significant anxiety and panic, stress over things that may be of little significance, or have an inability to distinguish thoughts or beliefs from reality. Some people may feel physically ill or fatigued as a result, and others may withdraw and isolate themselves. One's ability to act rationally and complete tasks may be affected by one's emotions.

When a person is experiencing emotional overwhelm, it may be difficult to verbalize exactly what the source of the overwhelm may be, because it is often the compounding of multiple stressful events and emotions that lead to feeling overwhelmed. Behavioral changes may be an indicator of significant stress or emotional overwhelm, and a person's daily routine and relationships may falter under the stress of emotional overwhelm.

How Therapy Can Help with Emotional Overwhelm

Therapy can often be a helpful way for a person to sort through difficult emotions, especially those that occur as a result of stress or trauma. In therapy, a person may be able to work through key issues, discover and understand the roots of the overwhelming emotions, explore ways to prevent emotions from becoming overwhelming, and learn coping skills to deal with potential emotional stressors that cannot be prevented. When emotional overwhelm occurs as a result of life stressors, therapy may also help one gain a better perspective on situations that lead to this state of overwhelm, and address recurring issues.

Certain types of therapy may also integrate practices such as meditation, self-hypnosis, focusing, and centering. These techniques may help individuals be better able to self-soothe and relax in times of stress, which may reduce the emotional impact. Journal therapy and exercise have also been shown to have a beneficial effect on emotional overwhelm. In some cases psychiatrists may prescribe psychotropic medications to help treat the psychiatric causes of emotional overwhelm.

Health Problems Correlated with Emotional Overwhelm

Emotional overwhelm may lead to physical health problems. As worry, anxiety, and other negative emotions increase, the body's ability to fight off infection may decrease, and the body can suffer from fatigue, which may occur as a result of poor or insufficient sleep. Medication and/or hospitalization may sometimes be necessary for the body to rejuvenate and rebuild strength and immunity.

Case Example

  • Emotional overwhelm after car accident: Raquel, 48, seeks out a therapist to help her sort through and cope with the significant stress, anxiety, and worry she is experiencing. Raquel explains that her husband was recently involved in a serious car accident. She at first felt extreme relief that he survived, but his recovery was slow, and she slowly began to feel stressed and worried. As more time passed, she began to be concerned about financial issues as well, and after a few weeks, the intensity of her emotions began to prevent her from focusing on other things. Raquel tells the therapist that now she cannot seem to concentrate on even simple tasks, that she spends evenings and weekends in the hospital with her husband, and that when she is not there, she cannot help but worry about him. Her coworkers have begun to point out many small mistakes she makes throughout the day, and she knows she has to improve or risk losing her job. She has not turned to her friends for support, she tells the therapist, because she feels as if she does not have the energy to deal with their concern. Raquel also admits that her physical health has suffered: She does not feel like preparing meals without her husband and rarely sits down to eat, and she often only gets four or five hours of sleep each night, which leaves her exhausted. The therapist begins to work with her, first helping her to see that when she is overwhelmed by her emotions, she cannot be a source of support for her husband. She acknowledges that Raquel is likely unable to prevent herself from worrying about her husband's recovery but helps her to see that she needs to develop effective coping strategies so that she does not completely withdraw from life. Raquel's therapist encourages her to spend time with her friends and turn to family for help and to take some time each day for herself. Raquel also begins to keep a daily journal and finds that writing down her thoughts and feelings helps to eliminate some of her stress: After verbalizing her emotions, she is less overwhelmed by them. Raquel's husband's recovery remains slow, but the coping methods she has learned helps Raquel remain positive, and both her health and performance at work begin to improve.


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