A woman overloaded with a huge pile of clothes so only her face is visible, colorized in magenta and purple. Original photo by Ron Lach via Pexels.

Have you ever felt like you were drowning in a sea of responsibilities and tasks? Do you find yourself constantly running on fumes, unable to catch a break, and on the brink of mental and emotional burnout? Have you felt stuck and unsure of what to do? If so, you're not alone.

What you’re experiencing is “overwhelm”. We reached out to people who have experienced overwhelm and asked them to describe their personal experiences. The results were both powerful and relatable. Here’s what we found.

When we asked participants to describe what overwhelm feels like and how it manifests in their lives, we discovered four main themes: feeling overcapacity, mentally overloaded, emotionally and physically spent, and feeling out of control.

What does overwhelm feel like? 1) Overcapacity, 2) Mental overload, 3) Physical & emotional reactions -> feeling paralyzed, 4) Can't control or cope.

4 themes of overwhelm

Feeling overcapacity

People consistently described having too much to do and not enough resources, time, or energy to accomplish everything on the "never-ending to-do list". That is, being overcapacity feels like we’re being stretched too thin and in many directions, with more to do than we have the capacity to handle.

“I feel overloaded with things to do. Responsibilities, tasks, expectations, things we want to do, things we have to do, things we feel we should do etc.”
“Overwhelm means the quantity of tasks are greater than capacity.”
“You feel like you’re getting stretched and pulled in so many different directions.”

Feeling mentally overloaded

It’s not simply the amount of things-to-do that is the problem, but also the mental strain of trying to juggle it all in your head at once. In neuropsychology, this is known as cognitive overload - or, feeling “mentally overtaxed”.

“It's not the timeframe that adds pressure but more-so the number of things I need to hold in my brain, and needing constant mental flexibility to be able to change between tasks/roles.”
“…my cognitive abilities are so, so impaired. My executive function goes completely out the window…”
“Feeling incapable of completing any task because of mental overload”

Feeling emotionally and physically spent

The physical and physiological consequences of being overwhelmed was a pain point mentioned by many people. We know that overwhelm can lead to negative thoughts and emotional distress. Given that the mind and body are inextricably linked, we also experience the physical sensations of our stress-induced thoughts (such as increased heart rate and muscle tension). These responses describe the body’s survival stress response (AKA fight or flight), where our brain physiologically prepares us to either face or flee from the stressor/s we face. We can also respond by “freezing” (which people describe as feeling “paralysed”), a stalling tactic where we disassociate or shut down to preserve our energy levels.

“…physical feeling of exhaustion and stress that comes from the pressures and demands of daily life.. I imagine it as this sense of rising pressure that fills my body and switches on my flight response. I just feel like curling up in a ball/quitting work and doing nothing.”
“It's just… almost like a paralysis.”
“It is body, it is mind, it is… ‘freeze’. It's a weird fight or flight response thing”
“I guess to me it would be a physical sensation…feeling physically drained”
“For me it’s a very physical feeling quite similar to what I imagine anxiety is, or it’s lead to feeling super anxious - high heart rate, very emotional, snappy, exhausted, nauseous and very “flat” which can last up to a few weeks pending being able to change my situation”

Feeling out of control

Finally, people talked about overwhelm as feeling unable to cope or deal with all of the of the other 3 main themes (i.e., feeling overcapacity, mentally overloaded, and emotionally and physically spent). Experiencing a sense of helplessness and lack of control was commonly mentioned, where people described feeling lost, unsure of where to start, what to prioritise, or how to manage all of the things they were responsible for and all of the thoughts and feelings that came with it.

“A situation or series of events that builds up stress and makes a person feel they are unable to cope or deal”
“I do not see an immediate way to take control of the situation in a way where I can be calm”
“The workload is too much I then feel overwhelmed, if I feel a situation is out of my control”
“I don't know what to do first”
“I feel like I can't keep up, or totally lost as to where to start.”
“I am unable to think, prioritise, arrange tasks”
“I don't know where to get started”

Why do we get overwhelmed?

Why does this happen? How do we get to a stage of feeling overcapacity, mentally strained, and emotionally and physically spent? What do we struggle with controlling? In our next blog, we discuss the common struggles that people face when dealing with overwhelm, so stay tuned. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to get an update when our next post drops!

About the Author

Dr Soukayna Bekkali

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