Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s how to cope

If you've got too much on your plate, it can have a damaging impact on physical and mental health.
Illustration of woman feeling overwhelmed

Multiple deadlines piling up at work, your mum calling incessantly on the phone to talk about plans with the extended family, a growing kids’ after-school activities list… sound familiar? 

Feeling overwhelmed is a very real part of our day to day lives, and it’s leading to a growing number of Australians feeling extreme levels of stress. And unsurprisingly, the impact of stress caused by being overwhelmed is higher in women. 

Research from Sana Health Group shows that 49 per cent of Australian women beat themselves up if they don’t meet their own expectations, and 74 per cent are worried about the expectations of others. 

Portrait of a busy businesswoman holding her mobile phone and working at home to represent feeling overwhelmed.

“It’s not only about balancing the myriad of roles taken on as women, but also feeling the pressure to thrive in every one of those roles. Upholding the hats of a working professional, mother, partner and daughter is an all-consuming and at times daunting feat – but one that women undertake on a daily basis,” says Georgie Blundell, CEO of Sana Health Group. 

“Modern society absolutely creates significant overwhelm in Australians’ lives, almost detrimentally at times,” she continues.

“An individual’s day-to-day is filled with many responsibilities, challenges, expectations and can often feel like a pressure cooker.”

Georgie Blundell

According to Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, our brains haven’t been able to keep up with the increase in the complexity of modern lives, leaving many of us feeling “in over our heads”. And this doesn’t have anything to do with competence or ability. 

But ironically, the feeling of constant overwhelm leads to cognitive impacts such as slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, and an impaired ability to problem solve. Over an extended period of time, this can lead to cognitive fatigue which can make our thinking less agile. Which can make us feel even more overwhelmed, leading to a vicious cycle. 

How does feeling overwhelmed cause stress?

When life and all its moving parts become too much for one person, the body releases excess cortisol – the stress hormone. 

“Feeling overwhelmed can make an individual overcome by emotions through a variety of physiological effects, such as sleep problems, muscle pain, increased blood pressure and more, inhibiting the ability to think clearly and navigate challenges, increasing stress,” explains Georgie. 

Occasionally feeling overwhelmed is not such a bad thing but when it becomes a constant – which is what many people experience as part of the always-on 21st century lifestyle – that’s when it becomes an issue. 

“The body frequently being overloaded with emotion and tension can impact judgment, cause emotional withdrawal, decrease energy, increase the likelihood of physical ailments, and, in worst case scenarios, even lead to substance abuse or further mental health issues,” Georgie says. 

Is there a solution?

There are ways to cope with stress caused by overwhelm. The key is to recognise what is happening first…

Recognise your stress triggers

This is the first step. “Everyone is affected differently by scenarios and what could cause overwhelm for one person, may not cause it for another,” Georgie says. “So, getting to know yourself and reaching a point where you can consciously recognise early on that a certain situation could overwhelm you, can help combat the stress that can come from it.”

How? One way to identify stress triggers is to think about an answer to a question like, ‘I become overwhelmed when X happens’. Another way is to look for the physical symptoms of stress, like shortness of breath, and identify recurring patterns.

Rationalise your thoughts

Avoid catastrophising. When overwhelm occurs, take a step back and put things in perspective. “Laying out your thoughts and helping yourself understand what is in your control, not in your control and why something may be occurring can really help these feelings become more digestible. This cuts the overwhelm off before the floodgates to stress are opened,” Georgie says. 

Practice mindfulness

A mindful approach helps alleviate the fight or flight response in the brain. Practising deep breathing, regular meditation and focusing on the present moment are all mindfulness techniques that help with stress management.

Some other ways to practice mindfulness include being out in nature and journaling – all ways to rewire the brain’s neural pathways so it becomes more resilient to stress. 

Woman practising yoga in nature to represent coping with stress caused by feeling overwhelmed.

Connect with your support network 

When coping with overwhelm, talking through things or just having a friendly face to turn to can go a long way. “Sometimes you need a loved one to be a sounding board and help you out of the spiral that overwhelm can cause. All it takes is one gentle voice of reason to ease your mind and body,” Georgie says.

In extreme cases, reach out to a professional for assistance. 

Create and practice boundaries 

If it all gets too much, plan an exit strategy. Work out what are your most important priorities, and then let some of the other things that are sucking up your time, energy and headspace fall by the wayside. It’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to focus on doing things that give you joy and pleasure. In fact, it’s important. 

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