Stress and Overwhelm

Do you often feel stressed or overwhelmed by daily life? Are you finding everyday decisions a struggle, and getting frustrated very easily? You may be struggling with stress or overwhelm.

What is Stress & Overwhelm?

While we might think that feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed are the same thing, the truth is they are very different, and often occur together, one after the other. If we were to define it:

Stress – Is the body’s response to a real or perceived physical, mental or emotional pressure. It causes chemical changes in the body, and can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger or depression.

Overwhelm – Is much more than just being stressed. It means you feel completely submerged by your thoughts and emotions about all of life’s current problems – to the point where you feel almost frozen, paralysed, and unable to do anything.

Often these 2 things are packaged together because what starts as stress can spiral into overwhelm, sometimes very quickly. And those chemical changes caused by stress, which make your heart beat faster, your muscles get tighter, your breathing get faster and your blood pressure higher, all put your body into a ‘fight or flight’ mode. Sometimes stress can be helpful, but other times it can be detrimental to your mental health.

If you are feeling stressed over a prolonged period of time, the stress response becomes unhelpful. Instead of helping you ‘push through’ that perceived threat, the pressures of our body can make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Quite often you might not even realise you are feeling too stressed, until these feelings of overwhelm sneak up on you. And once you are overwhelmed, you may struggle to think and act rationally, manage your emotions effectively, or even perform simple daily tasks. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another, and it’s something that we think isn’t talked about enough in mental health discussions.

How Does it Feel?

Most of us have probably felt stressed at some point in our lives. It’s a natural response, and in small doses, it can be really helpful. It’s designed to sharpen our senses and help us deal with a real or perceived threat, which is why you will feel your heart racing, your senses sharpen and your body tense up, ready to run or fight. But too much stress for too long can be unhelpful, and can make you feel anxious, angry, sad or frustrated. It can even produce some physical symptoms, making you feel even worse, and for some people stress events can contribute to symptoms of depression.

Feeling overwhelmed is much more than just the feeling of stress. It’s often described as feeling like you’re drowning. You’re completely submerged by everything that’s going on, and you have no idea what to do to stop it. It’s like riding a rough wave – a scary experience and you don’t always know which way is up, what way to swim, or you may feel stunned and unable to react at all. So instead, you end up foundering, looking for anything you can grab onto to keep your head above water. You might feel anger, fear, anxiety, guilt and even depression, and in some cases you may start to suffer from panic attacks. This feeling can happen over a short burst of time, or over a much longer period, and can be triggered by a lot of different things.

Stress & Overwhelm Warning Signs

When it comes to preventing stress and overwhelm, the best thing you can do is understand the warning signs. By recognising what leads you to feeling stressed and overwhelmed, what your triggers are for those emotions and what your response to them is, you can take steps to prevent them happening, or manage your mental health when they do.

There are 3 main types of stress we tend to see:

Acute: This is the most common type of stress, and it can be helpful in short bursts. It’s the body’s natural response to a recent or anticipated challenge, or an unexpected event. Common symptoms include emotional distress, muscle tension, headache, back pain or jaw ache, upset stomach, rapid heartbeat and a rise in blood pressure. Acute stress is often caused by a specific event, and isn’t too much of an issue for your mental health (except for in the case of traumatic events, which can lead to PTSD).

Episodic acute: If acute stress starts to happen more often, or without an obvious trigger, then you may be suffering from episodic acute stress. When this happens, you might feel like you are always under pressure, and things are always going wrong – which can be both mentally and physically exhausting. It may also affect the way you behave towards others, and can lead to irritability, unintended hostility and relationship problems.

Chronic: Ongoing stress is known as chronic, and is often the result of long-term emotional pressure. For example a stressful job, unhappy family situations or money problems. If you suffer from chronic stress, your body experiences the fight or flight response too frequently to recover between episodes. So your nervous system is constantly aroused, which isn’t good for your physical or mental health, and can lead to a lot of other chronic health issue, including heart disease, problems with the immune system and depression.

What Causes Stress & Overwhelm

There are all sorts of things that can trigger both stress and overwhelm, and it’s important to remember that everyone reacts to things differently, and what causes overwhelm in one person might not in another. A few common experiences that can lead to stress and overwhelm include:

  • Relationship issues
  • Physical or mental illness
  • A demanding job
  • Lack of proper nutrition
  • Money problems
  • Time constraints
  • Significant life changes
  • Personal trauma, like abuse
  • Lingering personal issue (like eviction or going to court)
  • Death of a loved one

How Can We Help?

The good news is, both of these feelings are completely normal, and with the right tools, they can be managed or even prevented. For lots of tools and techniques to use to combat these feelings go to the ‘stress’ or ‘overwhelm’ sections in our Melp app. To download this and start a 30 day free trial go to