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10 Signs You Are Emotionally Overwhelmed (And What to Do about It)

  • RJ Thesman Contributing Writer
  • 2018 24 Jul
10 Signs You Are Emotionally Overwhelmed (And What to Do about It)

Medical experts tell us multi-tasking does not work. Although we may feel more productive, multi-tasking actually confuses the brain and causes more stress. Likewise, when we are emotionally overwhelmed, our inner health is affected. Our souls become scarred and creativity flails. We lose energy even as the desire to help others becomes overshadowed by resentment.

How can we tell when we are emotionally overwhelmed? And how should respond when we recognize this in our own lives? 

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  • 1. We can't think.

    1. We can't think.

    We become confused at work, forget where we put the car keys—again—or completely space out during an important activity. Trying to come up with a new project or creative idea seems taxing, almost impossible. We may lose the capacity for routine tasks such as brushing our teeth or remembering to add soap to the laundry.

    What you can do about it: During the overwhelming brain freeze, it’s important to realize you’re probably not heading for early-onset Alzheimer’s. You are just overwhelmed by the stresses of life and the burdens of others. Take a deep breath. Make a list and slowly accomplish one thing at a time. Give yourself grace and ask forgiveness when you forget your child’s soccer game.

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  • 2. We can't sleep.

    2. We can't sleep.

    Although we feel exhausted by the burdens we bear, restful sleep seems as far away as next year’s vacation. We wake up in the middle of the night, worry about the latest problem and try to pray for everybody whose name starts with “J.” We climb out of bed and pace for a while until we feel tired enough to try sleep again.

    What you can do about it: Keep the electronics away from your nightstand and turn off the computer at least one hour before bedtime. Before you climb into bed, cast every care on the One who never sleeps. Ask God to deal with any problems while you rest. Breathe deeply and focus on the peace Christ promised us. Try not to let troubles climb into bed with you (John 14:1).

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  • 3. We feel impatient.

    3. We feel impatient.

    Waiting in line at the grocery store or twiddling our thumbs during a stop light. The computer rep on the phone puts us on hold—again. Doesn’t she know we’re busy serving the Lord? Number One son needs help with his math homework, but he can’t seem to understand basic algebra. The boss adds another task to the already overloaded calendar. Impatience makes us snap, because peace has left the building.

    What you can do about it: Give yourself time to finish projects. Don’t over-promise anything. Fight against the perfectionism that leads to self-doubt and self-sabotage. Read Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist. Shauna describes herself as being “exhausted and isolated, soul and body sick.” Then she learned how to pull back, how to protect her emotional energy and how to choose only the projects that fed her soul. 

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  • 4. We can't pray.

    4. We can't pray.

    Communion with God suddenly feels like a rote experiment. We may read our required devotion every morning and repeat the usual “Thank you, God” prayer, but communication seems frazzled. God feels far away. We wonder if we have committed some terrible sin, or we may think God is pruning us for future service. But the One who promised to never leave us seems to have checked out.

    What you can do about it: Read Psalm 59:3, especially in the Amplified version. “Fierce and mighty men are banding together against me, not for my transgression nor for any sin of mine.” This season is not your fault. When you’re emotionally exhausted, it’s difficult to communicate with anyone: spouse, friend, child, even the Yorkie terrier. When you can’t pray, it’s a signal from your soul: time to schedule a retreat and get away from all the mess.

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  • 5. We feel overburdened.

    5. We feel overburdened.

    Like a heavy blanket, we know the struggles are piling up. Too many people with too many problems. So many meetings to attend and problems to fix. Shoulders feel tight and a migraine threatens. A coronary episode feels imminent. Is it time for a physical? You canceled the last one because the denominational conference seemed more important and you had to give the opening devotion. 

    What you can do about it: Talk to a close friend, someone you can trust. Release the burdens and let your friend help you pray. When Moses felt the burdens of battle, Aaron and Hur helped to lift his hands (Exodus 17). They were beside him for the duration. Their strength added to his power and the Israelites won. 

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  • 6. We don't want to be around people.

    6. We don't want to be around people.

    Emotional overwhelm may manifest in people resentment, especially for introverts. We’re already dealing with family dynamics and church problems. Another friend is in spiritual trouble and screaming for help. Our teenager just discovered her first zit and screamed, “Make it go away, Mom!” But we simply do not have the energy to come up with solutions for all the problems in our world. Our service well is completely dry.

    What you can do about it: It’s time to build healthy boundaries. The word “no” is just as spiritual as, “Sure, I’ll help.” You don’t have to answer every text or read through every email. You can say, “Hmm, I’ll get back to you later.” Take a rejuvenating nap. Fight for self-care and avoid codependency. Remember the example of Jesus. When the people pressed around him, he rowed across the lake and took a nap (Luke 8:22). He protected his emotional reserves. You can learn to do the same.

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  • 7. We become moody.

    7. We become moody.

    A snarky attitude begins to take over. We find ourselves snapping at the news anchor because he only reports the bad stuff. We yell at the kids even though they’re just being kids when they run through the house or spit out vegetables. We yell at the cars next to us and use words that are better left unspoken. We hope nobody from church finds out we just cussed at the school crossing guard. All those negative emotions are trying to spill out. They need a release valve. If you don’t do something soon, you will either explode or you’ll internalize which can lead to emotional implosion. 

    What you can do about it: It’s time to do something physical. Go to the gym and beat on the punching bag. Take a brisk walk around the block — alone. Talk out your emotions as you walk. My favorite release is to beat a cardboard box around the back yard using my son’s baseball bat. Sometimes I label the box with the name of a situation causing me grief. I have destroyed numerous boxes but afterward, I felt better.

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  • 8. We feel numb.

    8. We feel numb.

    The numbness of emotional overwhelm is actually more dangerous than moodiness or the expression of negative behaviors. Numbing means we’ve internalized the emotions and now we’re in danger of major problems. Especially for people in ministry, numbing seems like a protective device. But later, sometimes years later, another emotional overload adds to the enormous burden. We find ourselves trying to self-medicate and doing things we never would have imagined. We suddenly realize we are the ones in trouble.

    What you can do about it: Find a credible counselor, someone you can trust and someone who is skilled. This may be the time to consider medication to help you get over the hump and give you the ability to function. Visit your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist who can prescribe antidepressants if they are needed. 

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  • 9. We stop having fun.

    9. We stop having fun.

    The kids want to go to a movie or out for pizza but we just want to take a nap. The family wants to schedule a vacation but we can’t think of a single place to go. Game night becomes boring. Date night seems impossible. The usual sitcom that makes us laugh now offers no relief. We punch through the channels and consider getting rid of cable because nothing’s on TV anyway. 

    What you can do about it: Make just one change. Sometimes one change begins a stepping stone of transition to help you climb out of the pit. One change may release some of the tension. Even a change in routine might bring back some enjoyment in life: a different coffee shop, a new outfit, a fun hair color. That single action may you help make it through a difficult season.

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  • 10. We suffer with chronic illness.

    10. We suffer with chronic illness.

    A series of colds or flu or a strange virus suddenly attacks. This can happen even months after the emotional trauma eases. The body has carried too much for too long and becomes toxic. It unloads those emotional poisons. Unfortunately, many of us wait too long for this wake up call. As ministry exhaustion flayed my emotions, I began to notice monthly colds. Just as I conquered one, another one attacked. Then bronchial pneumonia set in and it was four months before I could sleep without coughing.

    What you can do about it: Pay attention now to the rest your body needs. Take care of yourself with regular doctor visits and proper nutrition. Nuts or a magnesium supplement can help restore energy. Make daily exercise a priority. Self-care is a vital spiritual discipline.

    Life is filled with emotional stress. We can learn to be proactive with our time and with our choices. We can protect our hearts from the emotional overwhelm we feel and live more abundantly with joy. 

    Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Tom Le Goff