Emotional Overwhelm: What To Do When You Have Too Much On Your Plate


At times, it’s easy to feel like you’ve got too much to handle. You may start with a clean plate—with little to worry about—but for each new challenge or task you encounter, a little weight is added to it.

This is manageable at first, but the pressure on you grows as the stressors accumulate. Maybe you’re busy recruiting, coaching, and managing all at once, while still trying to prioritize your professional development.

Whatever it is, everything’s under control until you realize your computer didn’t save that last version of the PowerPoint you created for this afternoon. At that moment, you start to feel like is going to short-circuit.

Is this something you can relate to?

If so, Feeling Overwhelmed is a Stress Coaching Card for you. This blog takes a look at the experience of being overwhelmed, how it affects you cognitively, and what you can do to reduce those feelings when they arise.

What Is Emotional Overwhelm?

When you experience emotional overwhelm, you feel as though you are totally drowning in your stressors and the thoughts and feelings that they trigger. You may feel disoriented, mentally paralyzed, or unable to respond to your challenges as if you‘ve been pushed under and stunned by a rough wave in the ocean.

Emotional overwhelm isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s often out of your hands. And while you don’t always have a choice about the problems you face, however, there are things you can do to restore your sense of control. This is particularly important if you feel like being overwhelmed is impacting your productivity or happiness or if you feel “stuck” and submerged in your own thoughts and feelings.

Now let’s consider how it impacts your performance…

Consequences of Overwhelm

Overwhelmedness is more than just an internal experience—it can have physical and cognitive impacts, too. Physiologically, it’s not unusual to feel frozen or even paralyzed. Evidence shows that constantly thinking in this state can have a whole range of mental effects, such as:

  • Slower processing
  • Feelings of confusion
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Impaired problem-solving capacity
  • Higher distractibility, and
  • A racing mind.

Because this state can be all-consuming, with real detrimental impacts on our functioning, I created the Feeling Overwhelmed Stress Coaching Card. By learning to recognize when this is starting to impact your wellbeing, you can start to take steps to manage the symptoms.

Three Ways To Cope When You Feel Overwhelmed

In today’s busy world, it’s easy to take on too much. While you might not be able to control when your plate gets too full, there are things you can do to decrease the feelings that accompany it.

1. Work smarter, not harder

When faced with a seemingly endless workload or constant demands upon our time, we often tend to react by working harder. You might find yourself putting in more time at the office or trying to find a solution than is necessary, which only adds to the stress you are experiencing.

Before you roll up your sleeves and dive in, it may be useful to consider why you’re doing so–is it important? Is it urgent? Is it both, or…is it neither?

Explore why your immediate response is to work harder and think about whether there might be a better way to go about it.

2. Feel The Room

Another great tip comes from my colleague Marc Vanschoenwinkel—when you’re consumed with internal thoughts, it helps to expand your awareness.

The next time you feel overwhelmed with worries and thoughts about your stressors, try “feeling the whole room” by shifting your attention to your surroundings. As you are still part of the room you are in, this exercise is an effective way to step outside of your head while still remaining a part of the visualization. Pay attention to:

  • The chair you are sitting on
  • The floor
  • The walls
  • The space between the walls and yourself
  • All the objects occupying that space
  • The windows…you get the idea!

By the time you’ve spent a few minutes outside of your own thoughts, you’ll probably notice you are feeling more relaxed and less “stuck in your head.” No special equipment required, and it doesn’t involve working harder!

3. Choose One Thing

It’s often tempting to multitask when you feel like you’re “drowning” with too many tasks. Succumbing to this urge only makes you less productive, however, and it can often add further to your stress.

The obvious answer is to tackle one challenge at a time, regardless of how stressful it may seem:

  • Choose one item from your task list and commit to only that task (“Finishing this or making X progress on this is my only focus right now.”)
  • Make that one task your sole priority and act accordingly, resisting the urge to take anything else till you achieve your goal.

If this works for you as it has for me, you’ll find that you stop stressing about all the things you have to do and start being productive instead. Try it!

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

Cover e-book Sphere of Influence 360º Team Kit with purple color bacjground and magenta colored text

Free Team Kit E-book

Sign up for our newsletter and improve your team’s potential with the exercises in our free Team Kit e-book.