What not to do when you're feeling overwhelmed

What not to do when you're feeling overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed is a common lifestyle challenge but here’s a counterintuitive approach to handling it.

We often receive reader emails seeking tips related to overcoming feelings of overwhelm and handling stress. When we see trends in reader feedback of that magnitude, we know it’s a sign that it’s a pressing topic for many others as well.

Yet, without knowing the specific situation(s) that have caused you to feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to provide recommendations on what exactly you should do to calm the turmoil you’re experiencing. Nevertheless, there are things you can refrain from doing in order to prevent escalating your emotions to uncontrollable levels.

In fact, you don’t always need to do, start, or add something to solve a problem. That’s because, as Psychology Today discusses, there may be problems that are too big for your conscious mind to handle.

Sometimes a deductive approach (removing, stopping, or avoiding) is a more effective means of dealing with complex situations as it quiets the conscious mind and allows the unconscious mind to kick it.

The very definition of the feeling of overwhelm is mental process overload — your mind has too much to deal with. So don’t layer on more.

So in this guide we’ll address 5 things you should not do so you don’t inadvertently add to the emotional burden you are already struggling with:

  1. Don’t Hold Your Breath

  2. Don’t Seek External Advice

  3. Don’t Withdraw from Others

  4. Don’t Make Important Decisions

  5. Don’t Indulge in Vices

Don't Hold Your Breath

Prolonged stress causes a number of physiological changes in your body that can cause short-term or long-term health challenges if not stabilized. One of those changes, according to Healthline in “The Effects of Stress on Your Body,” are faster and shallower breathing.

The more the stress response fires, releasing stress hormones into your body, the more difficult it becomes to breathe.  And, if you already have a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition this could be downright dangerous.

So when you are feeling overwhelmed, grappling with unhealthy levels of stress, don’t hold your breath. It may sound obvious but under stress it’s just that easy to forget.

As Forbes reports in “Breathing And Your Brain”:

Controlled breathing may be the most potent tool we have to prevent our brains from keeping us in a state of stress, and preventing subsequent damage caused by high stress levels.  The relaxation response is a built-in way to keep stress in check.
— Forbes

In this article Forbes is referencing the work of physician Dr. Herbert Benson from his book “The Relaxation Response”.

According to Dr. Benson’s research-backed theory it is of utmost importance to be aware of your breath and actively manage it, if necessary, to limit the build up of overwhelm and other mental and physical symptoms of stress.  

If you are interested in learning more about controlled breathing (also known as deep breathing) then read psychologist Belisa Vranich’s book “Breathe”, where she offers a simple 14-day program on breath work and its benefits.

Don't Seek External Advice

As mentioned, when you are feeling overwhelmed you are in a state of overload that is firing your stress levels. By adding fuel to the flame, particularly by taking in more inputs, you are forcing your conscious mind to work by processing information when it needs to rest and relinquish control.

When I have a problem, I have a habit of immediately jumping on Google to search around for quick fix solutions. This sometimes leads to even more confusion and feelings of frustration as I attempt to make sense of all the random advice I just consumed.

Don’t make my mistake because information overload is an actual phenomenon that could exasperate your feelings of overwhelm, particularly given the easy access to excessive amounts of information via digital devices.

Research by analysts at a data firm called ESRI UK suggests that over a third of people feel stressed every single day by the amount of information they have to process:

61%  of those surveyed say that the need to read and keep track of information from too many sources is a major concern in their daily lives, and 34% say they struggle to absorb the content. For many (44%) the solution is to deliberately ignore communications that come in, with 14% even hiding their device to avoid checking it.

Worryingly, just under half say that the stress of data overload has affected either their sleep or relationships with family or colleagues, and over a third says that it makes them feel anxious, fidgety and unable to relax.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz says in his book The Paradox of Choice, you can reach a tipping point where an abundance of options causes overload “and at this point choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Whoever you seek support from during periods of overwhelm should be a trusted member of your inner circle (i.e. family, friend, life coach or therapist) who has proven to provide sound counsel in the past.  

Don't Withdraw from Others

Speaking of your inner circle, when overwhelmed you should definitely phase out superficial connections that further draw on your limited energy and emotional resources. But don’t shut the door on your close personal relationships during this time.

Healthy social relationships reduce the impact of stress and are linked to the reduction of cortisol (the stress hormone) according to research summarized by clinicians at the University of Texas Austin.

The American Psychological Association further supports these findings with studies that reveal “the average stress level for those with emotional support was 5 out of 10, compared to 6.3 for those without such support”.

It may seem counter-intuitive to sustain or even increase interaction with others during times of high stress, but it actually complements an earlier point I made about giving your mind a break.

When you connect with others, especially those who are trustworthy and supportive, it’s a way to release some of the burden. The mere act of healthy venting to a loved one not only helps you let go of the negative energy you are harboring but also strengthens the relationship.

According to WebMD social withdrawal could be a sign of the early onset of depression so try to stay connected during times of stress. And if you sense yourself becoming increasingly isolated don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Don't Make Important Decisions

Your judgement is questionable when emotionally distressed. It may be wiser to wait until you feel more in control and can make rational choices.

Researchers at the University of Southern California have found convincing evidence that stress influences cognition. One way is that it changes the way you think about risk and reward:

Stress responses may result in a bias toward potentially rewarding options while diminishing avoidance of negative options. Stress can also impair avoidance of previously rewarding but no longer rewarding stimuli.
— Researchers, University of Southern California

You may assume that when feeling overwhelmed you have a greater tendency to shed a negative light on situations but the opposite is true: you actually pay much more attention to and overweigh the upside of things.

Perhaps it's because the optimism temporarily suppresses the negative feelings associated with the source of stress. But, whatever the reason, by not equally considering the pros and cons of your decisions you may ultimately choose wrong. And, if it’s a big decision, end up putting yourself under even more stress.

This is one of the reasons why addiction is so closely connected to stress: people seek the rewards that a quick fix offers while continually ignoring the downside.

Don't Indulge in Vices

Since you are more apt to make poor decisions when feeling overwhelmed, it is especially important to be mindful of this and control any unhealthy urges that can lead you astray.

What separates emotionally stable individuals from those who aren’t is the ability to deal with hardship without falling off a cliff. The problem is that it only takes one misguided choice to send you right over the edge.

Chronic stress is a major risk factor for addiction particularly substance abuse because, in seeking rewards, people are more apt to turn to vices in order to self-soothe.

If your overwhelm compels you to turn to alcohol, drugs, gluttony, and so on, then you’ll inevitably unlock a whole host of extra problems that could be hard to rectify.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Set up a complimentary life coaching session and let’s discuss specific ways in which you can get a better handle on your life and work and find balance.