Life can be overwhelming at times, and it can feel all-consuming.
Whereas a little bit of stress can be motivating and allow us to complete tasks that need to be done, experiencing emotional overwhelm can cause us to shut down altogether. Whether it is a matter of overestimating the among of energy that is required to complete a task and doubting our abilities to solve the problem or going through a triggering event, being overwhelmed has consequences on our mental health through impairing our rational thinking, our social lives, interfering with self-care, and even increases the risk of physical illness. Thankfully, it can be managed and acknowledging such feelings is the first step. Being conscious and self-aware of what is happening within us brings opportunity to heal and manage rather than suppress difficult thoughts and feelings. Today we are sharing causes and signs of emotional overwhelm as well as calming techniques and coping strategies to take control. 
events that can lead to emotional overwhelm:
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Physical or mental health illness
  • Financial distress and insecurity
  • Habitual lack of quality sleep
  • Significant life changes
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • A demanding job
  • Losing a loved one
  • Time constraints
  • Traumatic experiences
Common signs you are being overwhelmed by your emotions

To prevent getting to the point of feeling unable to function, it is important to be proactive and watch for the following warning signs:

  • Having a reaction to a situation that is disproportionate to the present reality (ex. you forgot to move your washed laundry from the machine to your dryer and broke down crying)
  • Drinking alcohol or using substances to cope
  • Experiencing excessive feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, depression, or guilt and quick mood changes
  • Withdrawing from people and activities that you enjoyed
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping behaviours
  • Trouble with concentration (forgetting things regularly, being unable to focus on duties, problems with making decisions, etc.)
  • Being physically ill or fatigued that can’t otherwise be explained
  • Increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself, others, and reality
Calming methods

When in emotional distress, it is important to get to a calm state in order to move forward with next steps.


  1. Deep Breathing: diaphragmatic (belly) breathing lowers blood pressure and relaxes tense muscles. It can be done in just a few minutes and can take place just about anywhere. 
  2. Emotional Freedom Technique: similar to acupuncture, EFT is a needleless method using fingers to stimulate acupoints on the face, hands, and body through tapping and while expressing thoughts/fears/stressors/affirmations.
  3. Meditation: meditation creates space between us and our feelings and allows us to recognize them in a non-threatening light. They become easier to accept and therefore easier to let go of.
  4. Yoga: emotional overwhelm translates into physical symptoms, some of which like tightness and pain, can be released through yoga postures.
  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: this technique focuses on tensing and relaxing all your muscle groups which lets out all the tension you’re feeling in a matter of seconds.
how to manage

Practice mindfulness: mindfulness can be thought of as attention training, a set of learned skills which bring us to the present moment. Through slowing down our racing thoughts and state of survival, we can better listen to what our body needs from us. Giving our full awareness to the moment quiets the noise around us. 

Avoid multitasking: just because we think we can balance multiple tasks at once, doesn’t mean it is effective or that we are designed to do so. Each time you multitask, you self-interrupt and each activity takes up to twice as long than if you were to do them separately to completion. In addition, multitasking makes each individual task seem harder than they actually are, fueling overwhelm. 

Visualize your well-being: one study showed that visualizing success was just 2% shy of being as effective as putting in the work to make it happen. Visualization involves creating mental images of an outcome that you want to achieve or of your best self. Think about a lifestyle that aligns with your priorities and values and picture yourself embracing it. Seeing the possibility of it happening boosts your motivation and confidence to take the steps to get there.

Have self-compassion: how we feel about and relate to ourselves directly impacts our perspective of the world and how we interact with others, so it is important to invest in taking care of yourself. Oftentimes, experiencing an intense emotion is a result of perceiving your needs as not being met. Give yourself some grace and recognize that you are only human which means things aren’t always happy and never perfect. 

Keep hydrated: whenever you start to feel overwhelmed by feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety, drink a glass of water first and foremost. There is quite a strong correlation between water intake and mental health. One study showed a 54% (for women) and 73% (for men) increased risk for depression in participants who drank two glasses of water or less daily while those who drank 2.4 litres of water or more per day experienced decreased feelings of fatigue, confusion, and sleepiness as well as reported positive outlooks overall. 

Hit the refresh button: you can’t move forward from the same physical space or mindset that you were once in. Wipe the slate clean, both literally and figuratively, by tidying up your surroundings.  It is difficult to do something when you can see a visual of ‘to-dos’ around you. Cleaning up your physical area also helps to declutter the mind. Other activities that help you to re-set include spending time in nature, exercising, playing with pets, and expressing what you are grateful for. 

Make a reverse to-do list: when there are a couple tasks you are behind on, it is easy to catastrophize and start to believe that you are getting nothing done and failing at everything. For a reality check and self-confidence boost, write down a list of things you HAVE already done (cooked a meal, made a call, sent an e-mail, watered the plants, etc.). Once you check them off, you’ll realize how capable you are at managing tasks. 

Use a journal: writing can help provide clarity and purge the thoughts that are taking up headspace. When creating a journal, it can be as freestyle or as structured as you want, depending on what would be most beneficial for you. Journaling requires use of both the left and right sides of the brain so it is an opportunity to engage analytical and creative muscles. 

Designate space: choose a space where it is safe for you to unload and unleash your emotions. When you spend time in a public, professional, or place where you are with others, you may end up internalizing your feelings to save face, which causes more harm in the long run. It is important that the selected space is somewhere where you are comfortable and know it is okay to take a break in without having to worry about the unfinished tasks or future events. Just let it out.  

Seek support: there is no shame in working with a professional. Therapists apply evidence-based approaches to best fit the presented issue. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, one tool that can be effective is to keep a thought record which entails communicating details of a given situation including the thoughts you had and the emotions you were feeling at the time of the event. Then, you are asked to challenge your thoughts by examining the evidence, as if you are a lawyer presenting a case, to establish new, helpful thought patterns. 

Emotions are a critical source of information for learning.

Joseph E. LeDoux