What does it feel like to be “overwhelmed”? It’s a bit like getting buried in an avalanche or being tossed around in the ocean by the waves. You probably feel disoriented, powerless, and anxious. But often most of all, you don’t even know what you’re feeling. Your brain just has too much to process; there’s no time to sit down and label your emotions!

Let’s make some time to do that right now. Take a few deep breaths and think about what you’re feeling in your body. Is your heart racing? Are you exhausted? Is your breathing quick and shallow? Or are you holding your breath?

Now that you’re (hopefully) a bit more relaxed, let’s explore what’s making you feel overwhelmed.

Why do I feel overwhelmed?

Feeling overwhelmed is about feeling like you just have too much going on. Our minds and bodies can only handle so much at one time. And they’re connected—having a lot going on mentally can make you physically exhausted. And not feeling well physically makes your brain feel jumbled up too.

Everyone feels overwhelmed now and then. Some people feel overwhelmed almost all the time. There are certain things in some people’s lives that make them feel overwhelmed more often:

  • Mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety, or a history of trauma
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Being a part of a family or community that puts a lot of expectations on you and holds you to an unrealistic standard
  • Stressful life events like moving, starting a new job, starting school… or getting fired or divorced
  • Not taking enough breaks, not taking care of yourself, or not using healthy coping skills
  • Physical health problems that sap your energy or just make day-to-day life more difficult
  • Not asking others for help, or not accepting help when it’s offered

Feeling overwhelmed is like…

Let’s use a little metaphor to explore the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Imagine your life as a big grocery bag. All the things you have going on in your life are different kinds of groceries. You have all sorts of items: bananas, cereal boxes, soup cans, and big sacks of potatoes. Some of the items are small and some are large. Some are light and others are heavy. Some come in conveniently sized boxes, but others are awkwardly shaped and don’t really stack well.

Each item represents a goal, a worry, or an obligation. Some of them are small (“Ugh, this drive-thru is moving really slowly today”) and others are big and heavy (“How am I going to pay for college?”). Either way, they can really add up.

You can only fit so many groceries in your bag before some of them fall out. If they’re heavy enough, the bag might even break. When we feel overwhelmed, that’s like having things fall out of the bag or start to poke through.

There are a few ways to handle this situation:

  • You can get fewer groceries. This is like simplifying your life and not setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
  • You can organize your groceries so the heaviest items are on the bottom, and all the boxes and cans are stacked neatly together. Organizing your groceries is like keeping a to-do list and tracking things on your calendar.
  • You can use a bigger, stronger bag. This is like building the mental, emotional, and physical strength to handle more. Some ways to do this are taking good care of yourself, getting enough sleep, and surrounding yourself with supportive people who help hold you up. Just remember that at the end of the day, we all have limits—and that’s okay too.

More tips for feeling less overwhelmed

  • Give yourself a break. Do whatever recharges your battery. You could take a walk, or watch an episode of your favorite show, or take a nap. Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” a break right now? Try to think less about when you “deserve” a break and more about when you need a break. Burning yourself out won’t do anyone any good. You’ll actually get more done if you rest when you need to.
  • Tackle one thing at a time. Find ways to break big tasks into smaller ones. Then pick one easy step, and start there. Accomplishing small goals will make you feel energized and motivated to take the next step.
  • Simplify your life. Many of us have been trained to always want more, and to focus on what we don’t have rather than appreciating what’s in front of us. Having hopes and dreams is a wonderful thing—but hopes and dreams are there to bring us joy and give us something to look forward to. When they become just another source of pressure, it might be time to reevaluate.
  • Have a system. How many to-dos are you carrying around in your head right now? Simply writing them down can free up your brain to actually do some of the things on your list. Some people use elaborate systems like to-do apps or bullet journals. If you find yourself forgetting things a lot, these things might be worth trying. But even simple checklists can make a huge difference.
  • Ask for help. Many of us have a hard time asking for help, or accepting it when it’s offered. But you can’t always do everything yourself—and you shouldn’t have to. Asking for help not only helps you feel less overwhelmed, but it can also bring you closer to the people you care about!
  • Take care of yourself. Stress takes a toll on your mind and your body. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re sitting all day, find ways to incorporate some movement. As we mentioned before, feeling overwhelmed often goes hand in hand with mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety, or depression. If you think you might be experiencing a mental health problem, try taking one of our mental health tests. Mental health conditions are treatable, and treating them can help you better cope with life’s burdens.

There’s no magical solution to feeling overwhelmed. Everyone is different—you’ll probably have to try a few things and see what clicks for you. In the meantime, remember that feeling overwhelmed is a normal part of life. Just because things feel overwhelming now doesn’t mean it’ll always be this way.

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