Emotional overwhelm is a state of being beset by intense emotion that is difficult to manage. It can affect your ability to think and act rationally. It could also prevent you from performing daily tasks.
Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more. If you feel emotionally overwhelmed for an extended period of time, you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional.
SIGNS YOU ARE EMOTIONALLY OVERWHELMED
Emotional overwhelm occurs when the intensity of your feelings outmatches your ability to manage them. An individual is most likely to be overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. However, people experiencing mania can be overwhelmed by euphoria.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, it may be difficult for you to pinpoint exactly why. Often there are many stressors contributing to emotional overwhelm rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life.
Here are some common signs that you are being overwhelmed by your emotions:
- You have a disproportionately big reaction to seemingly insignificant situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
- You feel physically ill or fatigued without knowing why.
- You have trouble focusing or completing even simple tasks.
- You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
- Your emotions color your perception of the world. For example, intense grief may have you feeling sad even during pleasant occasions.
CAUSES OF EMOTIONAL OVERWHELM
You will likely feel a state of emotional overwhelm at some point in your life. Sometimes, this overload stems from a single big stressor. It is common to feel overwhelmed after surviving a traumatic accident or losing a loved one.
Yet overwhelm can also occur due to many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.
Some emotions may overwhelm you more easily than others. You may find it easier to manage your anger than to tolerate extreme fear or sadness. If you have many conflicting feelings at once, emotional overwhelm can be especially likely.
CONSEQUENCES OF EMOTIONAL OVERWHELM
Emotional overwhelm can make it difficult to take care of yourself. You may forget meals, skip rest breaks, or struggle to fall asleep. These behaviors can in turn lower your ability to think rationally, making it even harder to cope with overwhelm.
If left unchecked, this cycle can lead to physical health problems. You may experience unexplained pain or develop persistent fatigue. As negative emotions increase, your body's ability to fight off infection may decrease.
Emotional overwhelm may also impact your social life. You may find yourself lashing out at others or avoiding conversation. These behaviors may strain your relationships with loved ones or professional colleagues.
HOW THERAPY CAN HELP WITH EMOTIONAL OVERWHELM
Therapy is often a helpful way to sort through difficult emotions, especially those that occur as a result of stress or trauma. In therapy, you may be able to:
- Understand the roots of your overwhelming emotions
- Explore ways to self-soothe, such as meditation
- Address recurring stressors that contribute to overwhelm, such as marital conflict
- Learn coping skills to deal with any stressors that cannot be prevented
- Treat any mental health issues contributing to overwhelm
With each concern that is resolved, you will likely find that dealing with other stressors becomes easier. Even focusing on one or two issues can significantly reduce your distress. Even if your problems seem endless, know that therapy can help you manage your life one step at a time.
CASE EXAMPLE OF THERAPY FOR OVERWHELM
- 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, which made her worry. As more time passed, she began to be concerned about financial issues as well. Raquel tells the therapist that now she cannot seem to concentrate on even simple tasks. She spends evenings and weekends in the hospital with her husband, and 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 Raquel knows she has to improve or risk losing her job. The therapist begins to work with Raquel, first helping her understand that when she is overwhelmed by her emotions, she cannot be a source of support for her husband. The therapist acknowledges that Raquel is likely unable to prevent herself from worrying but helps Raquel see that she needs to develop effective coping strategies so that she does not completely withdraw from life. Raquel's therapist encourages her to 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 eliminate some of her stress: after verbalizing her emotions, she is less overwhelmed by them. Her husband's recovery remains slow, but the coping methods Raquel has learned helps her remain positive. Both her mood and performance at work begin to improve.
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