photo by Kinga Cichewicz
by Andrea M. Darcy
Is feeling overwhelmed with life something you deal with often? In ways others don’t seem to understand?
The definition of overwhelm
Overwhelm means everything suddenly seems too much, and we don’t believe we can manage.
While some types of overwhelm are quite typical and with obvious triggers, there are other types of overwhelm that are harder to explain, and can actually be a sign of mental health issues at play.
Typical reasons for feeling overwhelmed with life
There are some things that overwhelm anyone, because they are outside the range of normal human experience and considered traumas. This could be an accident, a natural disaster, or witnessing a crime.
Other common reasons for overwhelm are life changes that take time to process, such as going away to school, breakups or divorce, a new and challenging position at work, and bereavement.
And of course we all have our limits over what we can and can’t manage, time and energy wise.
We can all feel overwhelmed if, for example, we:
In these cases overwhelm is a feeling that signifies we are experiencing stress.
Stress is a response to a trigger we can pinpoint. Left unchecked, stress can lead to burnout. But with the right support, we can troubleshoot the situation and take steps to get through to the other side.
Why do I feel overwhelmed when others don’t?
But what if you are feeling overwhelmed with life and you can’t pinpoint a logic reason why? Leaving you embarrassed and ashamed?
Sometimes it’s that ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ feeling. But for some of us it’s like a storm descends and we feel lost in our reactions and big emotions.
- The dishwasher doesn’t work and you are suddenly sitting on the floor crying.
- Someone gives typical feedback on a presentation but you are overwhelmed with inappropriate rage.
- A partner says they are going out with friends and you are lost to a strange panic.
- A passing vehicle toots its horn at someone and you are overwhelmed by fear.
- Going to the doctor gives you a strange fatigue and a foggy mind.
These kinds of overwhelm seem illogic because the response doesn’t match the present moment.
This happens when unresolved past issues are unconsciously driving our responses.
Psychological issues that cause overwhelm
So what sorts of past-related mental health issues might be driving your issue with overwhelm?
Is your overwhelm physical, and triggered by a panicked thought? Your heart pounds, you feel sweaty, your stomach clenches? Are you always mentally considering potential dangers?
Unlike stress, anxiety does not tend to have a logical cause. Or we troubleshoot one thing that is causing us to feel anxious, only to feel anxious about something else entirely. It is a fear-based way of thinking that triggers the fight, flight, or freeze mode, meaning we are both mentally and physically overwhelmed.
Are you overwhelmed by unexplainable sadness? And feelings that you have no future, or that things are irreparably wrong with you? Do you even feel so overwhelmed you don’t want to see friends or leave the house?
Depression means we feel hopeless and without a future, while mired in shame about our past. It too can be quite physical, with our limbs feeling made of lead and our head full of sand. Simple things like getting ready to go to the shops can feel overwhelming if depression becomes severe.
Do you live your life on edge, scanning for danger? Do environments and experiences trigger your fight, flight or freeze response? A knock on the door, a certain smell, a certain type of person? And did you live through a trauma?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can leave you feeling overwhelmed several times a day. Your mind and body are stuck on high response mode. You might struggle with things like sleep issues, anger problems, and addictions.
4. Complex PTSD.
Does the above sound familiar, but there was not one exact ‘big trauma’? But rather you lived through difficult childhood experiences? Or repeat childhood trauma, like sexual abuse?
Complex PTSD is a long-term and ongoing trauma response that sees you easily overwhelmed. You can be more emotional that others, and also jumpy, tense, with physical symptoms like constant colds and flu and stomach upset.
5. Adult ADHD.leaves you feeling overwhelmed with life.
Does overwhelm happen for you because you often just feel like there is so much to be done that you can’t keep up? Or because others can’t keep with you or keep misunderstanding you? And you either feel enraged or like crying?
Adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD) can cause a lot of frustration and overwhelm. It means your brain is constantly whirring, causing your problems with focus, attention, organisation, time management, and relationships.
Do you feel overwhelmed by environments? Too many sounds, colours, lights, too much talking? Do other people’s emotions feel too much for you to handle? And does too much change to your schedule make you panic?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of symptoms that see you more reactive to sensory experiences and less emotional than others. You can also struggle with changes to routine.
7. Anxious attachment.
Do you only feel overwhelmed when you are in a relationship? Right when you should feel happy and in love, do you secretly feel panicky, uncertain, and even struggle to relax and sleep?
Anxious attachment happens when we did not have a parent or caregiver we could rely on for unconditional love and attention as a young child. Either our parent was unreliable, leaving us uncertain we were safe, or we were only given love if we appeased them. The end result is that we connect love with anxiety.
Do you have emotional ‘storms’? Feel calm one minute, then an emotional wreck the next? Fly into a rage, or end up in a puddle of tears? Do others call you oversensitive, and do you punish people if you think they might abandon you? Do you tend to have fiery but short-lived relationships?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) usually stems for a childhood trauma like sexual abuse that has affected your emotional ‘thermostat’ and ability to self regulate. A main symptom is fear of rejection and abandonment.
9. Primarily obsessional OCD.
Do you have strange thoughts you are ashamed of that totally overwhelm you? That might be sexual or violent in nature? And do you then have patterns of thinking or behaviour to deal with these thoughts, like mental checklists, praying or repeating things in your head, or excessively researching to ‘prove’ you are okay?
Primarily obsessional OCD, or what sufferers call ‘Pure OCD“, is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that means your head is a constant storm of extreme thoughts that are like mental torture. And instead of a more typical compulsive response, like hand washing or organising, you might use mental compulsions to calm yourself.
Can therapy help my overwhelm?
Counselling and psychotherapy helps all types of overwhelm, from general life stress, to dealing with life change, to any type of mental health issue or disorder.
Ready to stop living life from a constant state of overwhelm? And feel back in charge again? We put you in touch with London’s top talk therapists who can help. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide registered therapists as well as online counsellors you can work with from anywhere.
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Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer of this site. She left a career as a screenwriter to follow her true love, personal development. She has now written thousands of popular wellbeing articles, and also works as a therapy consultant, helping people find the right therapist and therapy.