What to do when you feel like you’re drowning in overwhelm

You might know the feeling. Waking up in the middle of the night (or at 4am in my case!) Looking at your desk and literally not knowing where to start. Moving paper from one pile to another. It’s an awful feeling. Usually brought on a period of intense stress or prolonged stress.

What’s the brain doing?

And unfortunately, our brain doesn’t help us out too much..

This great article has this to say about what happens to the brain when we are under stress:

“When we feel under pressure the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us. This is called the “stress response” or the “fight-or-flight” response.
When we are stressed, the respiratory system is immediately affected. We tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. Although this is not an issue for most of us, it could be a problem for people with asthma who may feel short of breath and struggle to take in enough oxygen. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely if someone is prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
Stress can actually be positive, as the stress response help us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand.
But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise.
Continuous activation of the nervous system – experiencing the “stress response” – causes wear and tear on the body.”
Prolonged stress causes the hippocampus – where memory is stored to shrink. This affects memory, mood and other mental functions. It can also shrink your brain mass and lowers your immunity.
And at a certain point – the brain just shuts down. 
It’s why when you’re overwhelmed, you lose your car keys constantly, or forget the most obvious of things. It’s why you walk around in a panic looking for your glasses, when they have been on your head all along.

What to do?

I can hear the collective groan, as the answers are the usual culprits.

  • Get enough quality sleep
  • Eat well
  • Stay hydrated
  • Reduce the stimulants
  • Exercise
  • Practise mindfulness

And last, but not least – look at what’s causing the overwhelm. This may require taking half an hour out to sit with a trusted friend or coach to go through everything on your list and bucket it into more manageable chunks. That’s really hard to do when you’re in the middle of a cortisol attack, as it requires calm thinking and clarity. So, enlist some help.

Now, off to take my own advice!!


  • Overwhelm always seems overwhelming, so it will take some kind of intervention to stop the feeling of drowning. Sometimes it does resolve on its own, but when it spirals, it becomes really hard to see the wood for the trees.
  • Enlist help. Even if that’s just to sense check your list!
  • Do the things – we know what makes a difference! We just need to do it.. Harder said than done I know!


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