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12 signs you’re overwhelmed and how to find relief

Jun 21, 202413 minute read

Feeling chronically overwhelmed is like standing in the middle of a storm. The swirling mass of tasks, emotions, and responsibilities feel intense—like you can’t find your way through.  

In a society that glorifies productivity, it’s easy to overlook the signs of overwhelm. When you’re overwhelmed, you may feel unable to manage a situation effectively due to its magnitude or intensity. This feeling can manifest as stress, anxiety, or a sense of being unable to keep up with the demands of a situation.

“It’s important to identify where the overwhelm is coming from and what can we do to lessen it,” says April Kilduff, Licensed Therapist and Clinical Trainer at NOCD. 

It’s important to identify where the overwhelm is coming from and what can we do to lessen it.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

“Maybe you’re in an awful job and you’re completely stressed and overwhelmed … A big piece of managing that is helping people learn to accept what they can and can’t control. For example, ‘I can’t control how other people think or feel about me, but I can control how I think about myself.’”

According to a 2023 study by the APA, 24% of adults reported an average stress level of eight or higher on a scale from one to 10. This is a 19% increase from 2019.1 

While these feelings are common, they don’t have to be continuous. Recognizing common signs of overwhelm is the first step to living a more peaceful and enjoyable life. 

1. You’re irritable or frustrated  

Feeling occasionally irritated by people or situations is nothing unusual. Everyone has moments of frustration. That is what makes this sign of overwhelm so difficult to identify.

If you constantly feel annoyed by people, situations, or even yourself, that’s a sign you’re feeling overwhelmed. When you’re stressed, that can make it harder to connect to others with patience. This leads to consistent anger or annoyance—even when you’d like to be calm. 

Warning signs: You have less tolerance for delays, mistakes, or interruptions. You react more strongly to situations that typically don’t bother you. 

How to fix it: Acknowledge these emotions without judgment. Identify the triggers that lead to these feelings and prioritize self-care practices and boundaries to help regulate your emotions. This can look like saying no to that extra project at work or even blocking out just five minutes per day for some deep breathing.  

2. You feel helpless or hopeless 

Feeling helpless or hopeless is a particularly difficult symptom to manage. It can make you feel powerless—like life is overwhelming and you can’t cope with its recurring challenges. 

If you’re struggling with hopelessness, know that you are not alone and there are people who can help. Give yourself grace and remove self-judgment as you seek support. 

“It’s not hopeless unless you’ve tried absolutely everything. And most people have not tried absolutely everything,” says Kilduff. “If you’re struggling with OCD and anxiety, there’s a really good effectiveness rate for exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Most people get better to some degree when they engage in it.”

Warning signs: You often dwell on negative outcomes and feel like you can’t make positive changes in your life.

How to fix it: Give yourself space to process your feelings and take action where you can. Engaging in activities that foster a sense of accomplishment (like setting small goals) can help you feel more capable. It’s also important to rely on support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals when things feel overwhelming. 

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3. You’re consistently anxious or worried 

Consistent anxiety or worry often manifests as lingering apprehension or unease. Even if there’s nothing daunting in the immediate future, your mind is constantly working to keep you safe from perceived threats. 

This sign of overwhelm also shows up in the form of racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, and physical symptoms such as tense muscles or trouble sleeping. It’s exhausting, and you deserve relief. 

Warning signs: You constantly worry about upcoming deadlines or imagine worst-case scenarios in various aspects of life.

How to fix it: Ground yourself in the present moment. Simple mindfulness exercises, like focusing on your surroundings, can be practiced anywhere and anytime. With these techniques, you can create a sense of peace and reduce the intensity of anxious feelings.

4. You withdraw from social activities 

Even if you identify as an introvert, all humans require some level of social interaction to maintain holistic well-being. It creates a sense of support, care, and belonging that is essential for a healthy, happy life.

Overwhelmed people often seek solitude as a coping mechanism. Being around others can feel emotionally draining, making socializing a burden rather than a source of relief. Experiencing “normal” social behaviors as alarming can be a sign of being overwhelmed.

“The problem with a lot of those maladaptive coping mechanisms, is that they work in the short term,” says Kilduff. “So you get the pay off that you’re looking for, but at the expense of long-term discomfort.”

The problem with a lot of those maladaptive coping mechanisms, is that they work in the short term.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Warning signs: This can look like repeatedly canceling time with friends or other activities you once enjoyed and choosing to stay home instead.

How to fix it: Communicate openly with trusted friends or family members about how you’re feeling. Try easing back into low-stakes social interactions you enjoy, like inviting a friend over for coffee or going for a short walk together. 

5. You avoid important tasks  

Everyone procrastinates at some point in their lives. But when avoidance becomes a consistent pattern and is coupled with other signs of overwhelm, it can indicate an underlying issue. 

Recognizing when procrastination shifts from an occasional behavior to a consistent coping mechanism is important. While the temporary relief may feel nice, avoiding difficult emotions or situations can increase stress as tasks pile up.

Warning signs: This behavior might manifest as repeatedly putting off deadlines at work, neglecting household chores, or avoiding difficult conversations.

How to fix it: Try to identify the root cause of the issue, whether it be feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, or simply feeling overloaded. Breaking your larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can also make them feel less intimidating and help you build momentum. 

6. Your appetite changes 

Stress can impact your relationship with food and eating habits. When you’re constantly overwhelmed, your body can respond by releasing hormones (like cortisol) which affects your appetite.3

This increase in cortisol can lead to overeating as a way to seek comfort or distraction from overwhelming emotions. On the other hand, you may experience a loss of appetite since stress can suppress hunger signals and dampen the desire to eat.4

As a licensed OCD therapist, Kilduff offers another perspective: 

“Our body needs fuel to function. Particularly with treating OCD,” she says. “When we’re doing ERP, that is not easy work. It takes energy and effort and willingness. Having a body and brain that are prepared to do those things is really important.”

Warning signs: You notice shifts in your eating habits, like increased or decreased food intake, more cravings for processed or sugary foods, or irregular meal patterns.

How to fix it: Practicing mindful eating (paying attention to hunger cues and eating slowly without distractions) can help promote a healthy relationship with food. Maintaining a nutritious diet with regular meals and snacks also gives your body the fuel it needs to cope with stress more effectively. 

7. Your sleep quality suffers  

Stress and overwhelming emotions can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and overall sleep patterns. It’s a physical manifestation of mental or emotional distress.5

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, your mind may remain active and preoccupied with worries. This makes it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Chronic stress and overwhelm can even lead to insomnia or other sleep disturbances, which negatively impact long-term sleep quality. 

On the other hand, Kilduff emphasizes that it’s also unhealthy to get too much sleep. 

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“Too much sleep, especially during the day, will throw off your whole Circadian rhythm. With too much sleep, you wake up and you’re still tired. That impacts not only your mood but what you’re able to get done that day.”

Too much sleep, especially during the day, will throw off your whole Circadian rhythm. With too much sleep, you wake up and you’re still tired. That impacts not only your mood but what you’re able to get done that day.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Warning signs: You can’t fall asleep (and stay asleep) throughout the night, or you sleep an excessive amount during the day. 

How to fix it: If you sleep too much, set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time—even on weekends. If you can’t sleep, try limiting screen time before bed and engaging in relaxing activities, like reading, to help signal that it’s time to unwind.

8. You struggle to make decisions   

Overwhelming emotions can cloud your judgment and make it difficult to objectively make decisions. This can cause “analysis paralysis,” where you feel you can’t move forward due to uncertainty and doubt. 

“Where a lot of people struggle with decision making is they’re trying to make the right decision or the perfect decision,” says Kilduff. “My strategy here is to take the absoluteness out of it. Look at what are ‘good enough’ decisions as opposed to right or wrong.”

Excessive deliberation can occur over simple tasks, like what to eat for dinner, or more significant decisions, like career changes. 

Where a lot of people struggle with decision making is they’re trying to make the right decision or the perfect decision.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Warning signs: You find yourself constantly second-guessing your choices or feeling paralyzed by the fear of potential consequences. 

How to fix it: Simplify your choices by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. It’s also important to acknowledge that it’s okay to make mistakes or outsource low-stakes decisions to trusted friends and family. 

9. You develop headaches or stomach aches

Headaches and stomach aches are other physical manifestations of overwhelm. Tension headaches can cause constant pain or tightness in your head and neck, while stomach aches consist of nausea, bloating, or abdominal pain.6    

Pain due to chronic overwhelm can significantly impact your overall quality of life. Kilduff has also seen this in her own treatment of OCD and anxiety. 

“Having an upset stomach is a really common part of anxiety. It can leave less room to manage and take care of your psychological condition because your attention is constantly drawn to the pain.”

This is usually a strong indication that it’s time to address the situations causing you distress, if possible. 

Having an upset stomach is a really common part of anxiety. It can leave less room to manage and take care of your psychological condition because your attention is constantly drawn to the pain.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Warning signs: You consistently get stomach aches or headaches in response to emotional distress from upcoming deadlines, meetings, or personal challenges.

How to fix it: Prioritizing self-care practices like therapy, getting enough rest, maintaining a balanced diet, and staying hydrated can support overall well-being and reduce physical symptoms of overwhelm. You can also rely on over-the-counter pain medications if the discomfort is severe, but this is not a long-term solution. 

10. You’re sick more often than usual    

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the last thing anyone wants is to catch a cold or the flu. Unfortunately, recurring illnesses are a common sign of overwhelm. 

Chronic feelings of overwhelm can trigger your body’s stress response. Prolonged stress weakens your body’s immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses.7 

Warning signs: You come down with recurring colds, flu-like symptoms, or minor ailments (like cold sores) more frequently than normal.

How to fix it: To manage this symptom of overwhelm, you have to reduce your overall stress levels. Taking steps to strengthen your immune system is helpful, but you should pair it with self-care practices like setting boundaries and other stress management techniques. 

11. You no longer make time for the things you enjoy   

Feeling too stressed to participate in activities that bring you joy? This is a common sign that you’re overwhelmed. The shift is initially subtle, but it becomes more pronounced as feelings of overwhelm intensify. 

This symptom of overwhelm often manifests when someone feels guilty about taking their mind off responsibilities to relax and find joy. But caring for yourself is just as important as the other pressing concerns on your list. 

Warning signs: You’re constantly saying no to things you enjoy because you feel too tired or too busy to pencil them into your day.

How to fix it: Recognizing this pattern and taking small steps to reconnect with your interests is the first step to bringing enjoyment back into your life. Rest and self-care are not a waste of time. Schedule them into your day, even if it’s just 10 minutes here and there. 

12. You experience panic or anxiety attacks     

This sign of overwhelm indicates your body and mind have been pushed to the edge. Panic and anxiety attacks are debilitating and very frightening. They can occur suddenly and unexpectedly in response to chronic overwhelm or specific triggers that cause acute distress. 

The Cleveland Clinic reports that 11% of U.S. adults experience panic attacks annually, and they are twice as prevalent for people assigned female at birth.8  Panic attacks are often felt alongside other conditions or anxiety disorders, like OCD. 

Warning signs: Everyone’s experience with panic disorders can vary, but they often cause chest pain or a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, chills and shaking intense panic or fear, and other symptoms that typically last five to 20 minutes.8  

How to fix it: If you’re experiencing a panic disorder, it’s a good time to seek professional help. At-home remedies like meditation and other self-care tools can also help, but the most effective treatments will vary based on your unique family history and stressors. 

Constantly overwhelmed? Know when to ask for help 

Feeling overwhelmed or stressed is a common part of the human experience. This is even more common (40% more) for those with a family history of chronic anxiety.8 

These feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. But when they become persistent or impact your quality of life, it’s time to seek professional help. Kilduff explains it this way. 

“If you had a broken leg, you would go get that treated. But we tend to brush off things that are more mental or emotional. I also see people say, ‘It’s not that bad yet.’ But you don’t have to wait until it gets really bad. This can be preventative care.”

Finding the right mental health professional can be daunting, but resources are available to help individuals navigate this process. If you’re struggling to manage any of these signs of overwhelm, here are a few that can help. 

If you had a broken leg, you would go get that treated. But we tend to brush off things that are more mental or emotional.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Mental health resources: 

  • NOCD: A teletherapy platform restoring hope for people with OCD through ERP therapy. You can also find a list of emergency resources and join the NOCD community for real conversations with real people. 
  • Psychology Today: This online search bar allows you to find mental health professionals in your U.S. city or state. 
  • Open Counseling: An online directory that locates affordable or free mental health services, including counseling and therapy.
  • LGBT National Help Center: A U.S. non-profit providing support and resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ+) individuals.
  • SAMHSA: SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. They also offer services specifically for U.S. veterans and their families. 
  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Similar to 911 for emergencies, a call to 988 provides immediate access for people experiencing mental health crises in the U.S. 

Just because something is common, doesn’t mean you have to endure it. If you recognize signs you’re overwhelmed, know that you deserve more and that there are people who can help. 

Sources 

  1. APA (2023, November) “Stress in America™ 2023: A nation grappling with psychological impacts of collective trauma.” (Accessed March 2024)
  2. CDC (2023, March) “How does social connectedness affect health?” (Accessed March 2024)
  3. Cleveland Clinic (2023, January) “Why you stress eat and how to stop.” (Accessed March 2024)
  4. NCBI (2018, July) “Neurohormonal regulation of appetite and its relationship with stress: A mini literature review.” (Accessed March 2024)
  5. Sleep Foundation (2023, November) “Stress and insomnia.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  6. The University of Chicago Medicine (2024, January) “Stress-related stomach pain: When to see a doctor.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  7. Cleveland Clinic (2023, November) “Yes, there is such a thing as stress sickness.” (Accessed March 2024) 

Cleveland Clinic (2023, February) “Panic attacks & panic disorder” (Accessed March 2024)

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