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  • Jules Rogers

Feeling overwhelmed by life? Here are some signs, causes and solutions.

Updated: May 8

74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.*

This is a shocking statistic that highlights how prevalent overwhelm and chronic stress is within our society. The worrying thing is that many people are unaware of the signs that they are becoming overwhelmed. In general we are good at saying "I'll be fine" and ignoring the early signs that stress is affecting our life.

Overwhelm happens when you feel unable to meet the demands of your daily life. It can show up in many ways, here are some of the most common.

Signs that overwhelm and chronic stress are affecting you.

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Feeling fatigued all the time - that's not relieved by sleep

  • Lower immunity - frequent illness

  • Feeling anxious

  • Isolating yourself from friends and family

  • Overly emotional

  • Increased frustration and moodiness

  • Using food, drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism

  • Change in eating habits

  • Tearful

I know that when you are in the depths of overwhelm you can feel so stressed that you are not aware of these signs! Also it can feel like a weakness and that you're not coping, so you keep pushing on with the hope that it'll get better on it's own. I know this from experience, and I also know that it doesn't get better on its own!

Common causes of feeling overwhelmed.

  • Living with or caring for someone who has a chronic illness

  • Caring for aging parents alongside your family

  • A demanding job

  • Trying to balance work and family life

  • Not feeling able to say "No" to people

  • Perfectionism

  • Taking on too many things at once

  • Not taking time for yourself to relax

  • Trying to "fit in" rather than just being yourself

The causes of overwhelm are different for everyone. For some it can be one thing that is demanding too much of you, and for others it can be a culmination of several different stressors making you feel like you can't cope.

Things you can do to reduce overwhelm.

  • Make time for yourself. This was the most powerful thing I did. I spent time thinking about all the things I used to do that brought me joy, and then I started introducing them into my life. I scheduled time for them and made them a priority. I didn't allow myself to cancel them unless it was an emergency. This was such an important thing for me to do, it showed me that I mattered and other people's needs weren't more important than mine.

  • Reach out to friends and family. Make time to see the people who you enjoy spending time with, people who you feel comfortable to be yourself with. Talk to them about how you have been feeling. This helps you process it and you will probably realise you're not alone, and that they have similar thoughts too. Make plans with them to do fun activities that you haven't done for a while.

  • Do things that relax your nervous system. Being mindful is a great way to relax our nervous system, because when we are mindful we are in the present moment. Most overwhelm is caused by us thinking about past or future events. Great examples of being mindful are going for a walk in nature and really noticing what you are seeing, smelling and hearing, doing gentle breathing exercises, meditating, singing, exercise or movement you enjoy, watching TV that makes you laugh, doing something creative and anything that absorbs your attention.

  • Being kind to yourself. If you're anything like me, you have spent years metaphorically beating yourself with a stick rather that being compassionate towards yourself. It took me getting chronically ill to realise that this wasn't working for me, and I doubt it's working for you either! I found this really hard to do in the beginning and had to start by talking to myself as I would a good friend, then I could move on to talking kindly to myself. It made a world of difference though, it felt like I was giving myself a big hug each time I spoke kindly and I mattered as much as everyone else.

  • Reframing negative thoughts. Taking time to notice your negative thoughts and then ask yourself if they are true or a story you are telling yourself. If they are not true, and I expect most of them won't be, change the thought to one that it is helpful and positive. When I started doing this I was shocked by the amount of negative thoughts I was having and struggled to reframe them. Over time it got easier to reframe them and the amount I was having significantly reduced, thankfully! Doing this exercise helped to shift my perspective and I realised that I'm in control of how I respond to the thoughts that my mind creates. This felt liberating.

  • Create good sleep habits. I know it has been said many times before, but getting a good nights sleep makes a massive difference to whether we function well, or not. Even though I'm recovered now I still go to bed early and allow myself time to unwind in a calm and relaxing space. I'm quite strict about my bedtime routine, but it works, so why change it! That's not to say I don't have days when I stay up late, but because this is now and again I easily adapt and cope without it affecting my normal sleep pattern.

  • Eating a healthy balanced diet. There are many diets out there that are healthy and balanced and the most important thing is finding the one that works best for you: One that gives you the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that nourish you and allow you to function at your best. Whichever diet you choose, there are definitely foods you want to minimise such as added sugar, refined carbs, ultra processed foods and too much caffeine or alcohol.

Your recovery from overwhelm will be personal to you, and it is this individual approach that will make it successful. It was a unique set of circumstances that got you here and it will be a unique combination of treatments that get you out of it. Tuning in and really listening to your inner wisdom will give you the answers you need. I wish you well on your recovery.

*Mental Health Foundation

Jules Rogers is a life and mind-body coach and is part of the People at Work network of therapists. Jules specialises in helping people who have chronic fatigue and overwhelm to recover their energy and regain control of their life.

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