Why Do We Feel Overwhelmed?

What Causes Overwhelm and How to Prevent It.

How has your week been? Has it felt stressful? Did it seem like your to-do list was never-ending? Perhaps you feel as though you’ve been hit by a (metaphorical) truck? If so, there’s a high probability you’re feeling overwhelmed and not easily able to manage the state of intense (usually negative) emotions in which you – almost permanently – find yourself.

In fact, one of the main consequences of overwhelm is that our feelings are outmatched by our ability to handle them.

In my clinic, I’m seeing more and more people feeling permanently stressed, chronically fatigued without a known reason, over-reacting in everyday circumstances, and generally having trouble focusing on the simplest of tasks.

Understanding some of the common causes of overwhelm is a useful first step in preventing it from happening to you. Here are the 4 most common:

4 Common Causes of Overwhelm

#1: Unrealistic Expectations

Many people are guilty of adding too many things to their ‘to-do’ list, expecting it all to be accomplished. Maybe it’s the fear of failure, of being ‘less than (perfect)’, of missing out on opportunities, or simply not wanting to look bad. Whatever the reason, you’ll feel worse if you don’t get everything finished. Plus, it will only add to your feelings of being overwhelmed because now your tasks are mounting up – being you, you won’t reduce the number of tomorrow’s tasks, you’ll simply add the remainder of today’s tasks to tomorrow’s. Am I right?! A better choice is to decide how much you can realistically handle and say no to the rest. There’s no shame or failure in that. It’s much better for your stress levels that you manage your daily to-do list than allow it to be constantly overflowing.

Additionally, the way you approach your to-do list can add a layer of unnecessary stress. How many of your ‘to-do’ items do you believe you ‘have to’ do? Be realistic – do they really ‘have to’ be completed today or can they wait until tomorrow (or later)? Also, are you looking at a list of 3 items or 30? Subconsciously, if we see a shorter list of things to do, it feels more manageable (and consequently less stressful) than a long list; so, avoid making a list with too many items on it.

#2: Media Notifications

Our society is controlled by the smartphone. This tiny but powerful device tells you immediately when you have a message, email or phone call. It warns you when something happens in the world, when it’s time for you to get up from your desk and walk around, and when your plants need watering. If you’re not careful, it will end up controlling you, causing an increase in your anxiety and overwhelm. One way to help cut your dependence on your phone is to put it away during dinnertime and time with the family. Engage with others and practise not answering every ping immediately; it’s highly likely that most, if not all, the pings can wait. And – unless you have a job that requires you to be on call overnight, or you’re expecting an urgent call – make sure you switch your phone off at least 1 hour before you go to bed and keep it switched off overnight.

#3: People Pleasing

People pleasers struggle daily with wanting to be liked and not wanting to let people down. People pleasers say no to themselves and yes to everyone else. Unfortunately, that typically results in them overcommitting themselves, with the consequences that they feel under-valued, overwhelmed, and have zero time for themselves. It’s much better to put in boundaries and learn to say no more often. If you’re someone that has a hard time saying ‘no’, pick one person or thing that you wish you could say no to, visualise yourself saying ‘no’ and imagine how great you feel afterwards. Then put it into practice!

#4: Lack of Self-Care

The more you add to your list and the more you allow others to take up your time, the less time you have for yourself. How often do you take time out to do something just for you and take care of your own needs? If you don’t, you’re at risk of overwhelm. It’s extremely important that you schedule in time for yourself to recharge and ensure you stay healthy. And self-care doesn’t just mean a relaxing soak in the bath or a massage (although that’s a good start!); self-care can be emotional, physical, social, practical, mental, and spiritual. Make a list of all the things that nourish and recharge your mind, body and soul – and make a plan to include some of these things on a weekly or even daily basis.

And don’t forget that sleep is the ultimate self-care. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not emptying your stress bucket and you’re putting yourself at risk of chronic fatigue, and high levels of stress and overwhelm. Creating a sleep routine is the first step to better sleep – this is a good article that can help.


Feelings of overwhelm will threaten your health and your happiness if you don’t put measures in place to stop it. The first step is to understand why you’re feeling overwhelmed and then take the steps required to make a change.

If you’d like more expert help, please schedule a free chat or get in touch.