A classic picture of overwhelm: characters Rick and Morty in Season 3, Episode 6 of the animated show "Rick and Morty", via Adult Swim.

What does it mean to feel overwhelmed?

Most of us experience the feeling of "overwhelm" at some point in our lives. Though specific triggers of overwhelm may vary from one individual to another, the experience itself manifests in similar mental, emotional, and physical ways.

Typically, people who are overwhelmed feel inundated with thoughts and emotions and find it difficult to manage or cope with them. This can develop into further issues that perpetuate the feeling of overwhelm, such as mental fatigue, inability to focus, feelings of ‘paralysis’, physical symptoms (e.g., accelerated heart-rate and fatigue), and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

"Overwhelm kind of feels like being in a storm and everything is whirling around you but you can't get a hold of anything specific and keep being pulled in different directions." - modo participant

What is the science behind this feeling?

Like most things, there is a scientific explanation for overwhelm. From a neuropsychological perspective, these described experiences of overwhelm reflect overburdened and overworked “executive function” (EF) capacities.

Sometimes referred to as “the CEO” or “conductor” of the brain, EFs are a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to plan, organise, and manage our daily lives, make decisions, focus on important things (whilst blocking distractions), self-monitor our thoughts, and regulate our emotions and behaviours.

American conductor JoAnn Falletta conducting in concert. Image by David Beloff, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Broadly speaking, our core EFs are comprised of:

  • Working memory: a limited storage system that holds information in your mind temporarily as you actively use it (kind of like your brain’s whiteboard - good for brainstorming, but easily erasable and impermanent)
  • Cognitive flexibility: also known as flexible thinking or cognitive shifting, this EF allows you to task switch and adapt to your changing environment efficiently and appropriately as you interact with the world every day (think about the last time your plans changed last minute, and you had to pivot; like when a babysitter is no longer available and you need to quickly figure out alternative options)
  • Inhibitory control: your ability to focus your attention on what’s important, inhibit or ignore irrelevant distractions and impulses that come your way, and control your emotions and behaviour/s accordingly (like suppressing the impulse to scroll through social media when you should be focussing on work)

It’s quite clear to see why these mental skills are essential for our everyday lives. However, when our core EF abilities are overburdened, these mental skills can become inefficient and 'glitchy', leading to feelings of overwhelm. Therefore, the feeling of overwhelm can be considered a cognitive problem (i.e., a reflection of overloaded EFs and a loss of executive control).

What causes overwhelm?

As mentioned earlier, specific triggers for feeling overwhelmed can vary between individuals. However, some common causes include:

  • Excessive to-dos: such as high workloads, familial and relational responsibilities, personal stressors, self-care needs, etc, coupled with feeling like there isn’t enough time to fulfil all of our pressing responsibilities
  • Overstimulated attention systems: being constantly deluged by information and distractions (e.g., social media, phone notifications, 24/7 news cycle, etc) leads our working memory capacities to become even more stretched as we experience high cognitive load and mental fatigue
  • Lack of control and/or coping mechanisms: feeling lost and/or stuck, unsure of where to start or how to make meaningful progress, and feeling incapable of managing everything life throws at us. Instead, most of us simply settle into ‘’survival mode” - just trying to keep our heads above water
  • Repetitive negative thinking (i.e., rumination and worry loops): The impact of executive inefficiencies can lead to cycles of rumination and worry as we become frustrated and concerned about our inability to make meaningful progress. Unfortunately, rumination and worry loops only exacerbate EF difficulties and can leave us in a self-reinforcing cycle of overwhelm. These factors affect our emotions and well-being, and in many cases, can become pathological (mood & anxiety disorders, attention deficits, stress-related conditions, etc)
  • Mental exhaustion: the sum of excessive to-dos, difficulties in coping/lack of control, negative thinking styles, and hijacked attention systems, completely overload our executive abilities and cause us to feel to cognitively and emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. Importantly, when our EF abilities become compromised, we are robbed of our potential to live in the present moment as we remain stuck in our inner world of negative thoughts, unwanted distractions, and mind wandering (50% of the time!), leading to further mental exhaustion.

These factors collectively lead to the experience of overwhelm and can significantly impact our wellbeing. Because we are inundated with never-ending tasks, responsibilities, unwanted negative thoughts and distractions, our brain conductor is constantly struggling with overstimulation, and our EF CEO begins to look (and feel) a little more like Rick from “Rick and Morty” than a sharp, organised, and together executive. As a result, our core EF abilities are lost/weakened in the chaos of information overload, and we’re left feeling overcapacity, overloaded, overwhelmed, and struggling to cope.

Rick And Morty Screaming GIFfrom Rick And Morty GIFs

What can I do about it?

There are a number of techniques that can help with the burden of overwhelm:

  • Make the invisible, visible, by writing things down: journaling is a powerful way to offload and process your thoughts (thereby relieving your working memory capacity), see connections, and gain insights and self-awareness that would have otherwise been lost in the fuzziness of your mind. It has also been shown to reduce stress levels and improve recall (that is, writing things down actually improves your ability to remember important information)
  • Build it up, break it down: gain clarity and direction by breaking down overwhelming complicated tasks or thoughts into smaller and more manageable actions. You can also build it up by identifying what matters most and what deserves your focus and attention, which often becomes unclear and lost in the chaos of overwhelm.
  • Time-box: implement practices such as the pomodoro technique to focus on small achievable tasks within a preplanned timeframe with breaks incorporated to help give yourself time to rest and transition between tasks and reduce the need for context switching (kind of like HIIT training, but for your mind)
  • Use organisational aids: reduce the number of things you need to do by outsourcing them to other tools that will do it for you (e.g., task management tools, reminder apps, calendars, utilising focus/do not disturb-mode on your device/s, etc)
  • Seek help: working with a trained therapist can help you understand what causes or triggers you to become overwhelmed, and equip you with the skills necessary to cope effectively.

Can using technology help or hurt?

“[T]he same technologies that are a source of the cognition crisis can play a positive role in enhancing what makes us human.” - Adam Gazzaley MD, PhD

Though technology can be a contributing cause of information overload and overwhelm, it can also be part of the solution. Scientific research has demonstrated the power of combining technology and remediation in helping people cope with mental ailments. For instance, smartphone interventions have consistently been shown to be effective in treating a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, stress, and general quality of life. When developed with an understanding of the brain and cognition, and when built with the intention of helping improve mental well-being, technology can serve as a powerful and accessible cognitive aid. The same can be true when battling overwhelm.

How is modo tackling the problem of overwhelm?

We are researching and developing a new product that aims to help alleviate feelings of overwhelm by targeting the source: overburdened executive functions. modo assists individuals by applying neurocognitive techniques that aid executive functions delivered via the use of technology.

About the Author

Dr Soukayna Bekkali

We've got you.

Join us on our journey to beat overwhelm and boost productivity. Sign up for our waitlist to be the first in line for updates and early access. No spam, we promise.

Thanks for signing up! We'll contact you as soon as our app is ready for early access.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please email us at support@meetmodo.com and we'll get you sorted ASAP.