Overwhelming emotions: A complete guide to what they are, what they do, and what to do about them

Everyone will experience overwhelming emotions at some point in their lives. They are part of the human experience. Understanding what is overwhelming, why, and what to do about them is the difference between coming through overwhelming emotional experiences stronger and healthier and getting through them fearful and ashamed. This article outlines how to understand overwhelming emotions, why you feel them, what consequences they have, and what to do about them. 

But first, let’s start with what overwhelming emotions are: 

Overwhelming emotions are intense feelings or emotions that outstrip your ability to respond to them. They, therefore, feel overpowering leading you to break down or lose control. They can be momentary experiences or can last over long periods of time. They stop being overwhelming when there is a resolution to the feelings or emotions. 

Why do I feel overwhelmed?

To understand why emotions can be overwhelming we have to first understand how emotions are experienced and what they mean. 

An emotional experience is made up of many different factors (see here for a detailed discussion) that are experienced together. 

We have thoughts about a situation. We have thoughts about those thoughts. We have memories and past emotional experiences that we can relate the present situation to. We have ideas about who we are and whether the present situation is helping or hindering our ability to be who we want to be. And we have an ability to predict what we think will happen, given our past and the present situation, and relate that to where we want to be. 

Together this makes up a complex experience with lots of feelings. We may label our experience with one label, such as ‘I feel regret’ or ‘shame’, or we may use many terms, such as ‘I feel ashamed, and guilty, and humiliated, and angry, and sad, all at the same time’. 

These feelings are in essence simply information. They tell you something about your relationship with yourself and/or your environment. I feel afraid because something is threatening me. I feel ashamed because I think there is something wrong with me. I feel excited because something good is going to happen. This information helps you evaluate your situation. 

Emotions require you to respond to them. This can be an externally focused response, such as saying or doing something to someone else. Or it can be an internally focused response, such as breathing to try and calm the body or changing how you think. Either way, you have to respond – even simply observing how you feel is a response! 

Overwhelming emotions do not just come out of nowhere. There is a scale that looks like this:

The common denominator for all of these is the level of demands placed upon you. You feel comfortable when you don’t really have any demands on you. You feel pressured when you know how to respond, you feel stressed when you struggle to respond, and you feel overwhelmed when you do not know how to respond. 

To respond you require resources, by which I mean where you get your ability to respond from. These could be:

  • physical resources (if you were trying to calm your body or getting into a fight) 
  • cognitive resources (if you were trying to change how you think)
  • social resources (if you need your relationships to address the feeling)
  • cultural resources (if it is about behaving in a manner that was considered appropriate in that moment)

Overwhelming emotions are overpowering because you either do not have the resources or you do not know how to use those resources in that moment to those feelings. 

Let us take some common examples to see what this looks like in real life

I remember many years ago when I was in school and I had a big physics exam coming up. I had put a lot of time and effort into revising for it but as I turned the first page of the exam paper and read the first question and started to worry as I didn’t know how to answer it. I read the next question and I started to panic because I didn’t know how to answer that. 

My emotions started to feel overwhelming because I had no way of resolving those feelings there and then. The feelings became even more overwhelming as I started to think about the consequences of failing that exam. What would other people say? What would it mean for my future? What does it say about me if I put all that effort into something only to fail? 

These overwhelming emotions were felt very intensely. I remember feeling it in my stomach, in my arms and legs, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to hold my pee. Panic. The feelings and thoughts got in the way of me being able to focus and do what was needed. 

While some people may say they feel overwhelmed by their emotions, usually people can be more specific and state what kind of emotion it is that is overwhelming. 

Here are the most common overwhelming emotions: 

Overwhelming anger: You are so angry at something or someone that you do not know what to do next. You might not know who is to blame, you or someone else? You might not know what to do, to shout and scream, to walk away, to say something cutting and intelligent!? And you may not know how to do what you want to do – not everyone has it in them to rage and scream at someone even if they want to.  

Overwhelming regret: You regret taking a particular action or not taking an action that you cannot now rectify. This feels most overwhelming when you believe that this has reduced your future opportunities, such as a happy and fulfilling life with the person you love. Because you cannot change the past, you do not know what to do or how to respond to the feelings of regret and they stay bubbling away eating at how you see your current life and who you are to have made such a mistake. 

Overwhelming nostalgia: You have a strong sense of belonging and attachment to a particular time and place that you cannot go back to. Situations happen that make you feel that you need to be back in that time and place but because you can’t you do not know what to do or how to respond. That sense of nostalgia is always out of reach and erodes your sense of belonging in your present time and place.   

Overwhelming guilt: You have done something that has harmed someone else or broken some rule that is really important to you. Most guilt can be resolved by apologies or acts to make up to the people who have been affected but overwhelming guilt usually stems from not being able to rectify the mistake. Without any resolution to the issue there is no way to deal with the feelings and they start to chip away at your sense of self as a moral person. 

Overwhelming shame: You feel responsible for doing something that is not consistent with who you are. The belief that you are not who you want to be can shake the very foundations of your sense of self. It can become very difficult to know what to do and how to do it to gain some resolution. 

Overwhelming sadness: You feel something has happened that is so bad and upsetting that you just do not know what to do to stop feeling sad about it. You keep thinking about these issues and it interferes with your life. You feel down and helpless to change the situation. It can make you feel there is no way back to feeling better. 

Overwhelming feeling of excitement: You feel something so good is about to happen that you can’t contain the sense you want to jump for joy, scream and shout in a good way, or burst with the feeling of excitement. You have to wait and this is hard to do because you want the thing to happen right now. 

Overwhelmed by happiness: You feel that something so good has happened that you aren’t sure what to do. You may feel like your face hurts from smiling, your heart may burst with embracing someone or a group of people who have made you feel happy, or a feeling of wanting to run down the road and shout how great life is. But you don’t! 

Overwhelmed with gratitude: You feel that someone has done something so helpful to you and that this may have been unexpected or over and above what was expected that you are overwhelmed by your feelings. You may want to cry, laugh, hug them, kiss them, scream, shout, and give them everything you have, all at the same time. 

What are the consequences of overwhelming emotions?

People experience and express their overwhelming emotions in many ways. 

Some people internalise their overwhelm and try to manage it on the inside. They may look like they are ok on the outside but on the inside they are worried sick, they are trying their best to hold it in and hold it together, they are trying to calm their body, they are trying to bite their tongue, but really they feel like they are falling apart. 

Some people externalise their overwhelm and everyone knows about it as a result. They can shout and blame other people, they can get upset and distressed, they can become aggressive and angry. They may feel like they are falling apart and they can sometimes look like that too. 

Whether you internalise or externalise, you need help and support to deal with how you are feeling and find a resolution. 

Some general consequences of feeling emotionally overwhelmed include:

  • a feeling of a lack of control 
  • trouble sleeping
  • irritability
  • physical fatigue
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • headaches
  • nervousness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irrational anger
  • increased cynicism or pessimism
  • sense of dread

Over the long term overwhelming emotions can lead to anxiety problems and exhaustion. Research has shown that prolonged exposure to emotional stress can cause not just emotional issues but physical ones too   

What can I do about overwhelming emotions? 

You need to resolve the feeling to stop them feeling overwhelming. 

You can start to resolve the feelings by really understanding how you feel. Focusing and observing how you feel, what these feelings are connected to from your own past, and where you feel the emotions allows you to more accurately understand and be able to communicate the feelings. 

You can resolve the feelings by expressing how you feel in a healthy way. This may not always resolve things but it can go a long way to doing so. Not everyone is good at doing this (see this article for more information on emotional expression) and you can take this quiz to see how you express your feelings:

You can resolve the feelings by engaging in a difficult conversation with the people who may be able to help resolve your feelings. These conversations are difficult because you have to be clear on what are your own issues and what are someone else’s, and that is made even more difficult when you feel overwhelmed. You then need to hold the other person to account in a respectful manner and assert what you need. It may not, however, go as you want it to. 

You can resolve the feelings by getting in touch with those you trust and discussing it. They can provide a safe place and empathetic ears to be able to discuss and debate the issues so you can see what is your own ‘stuff’ and what is really going on. 

You can resolve the feelings by learning the skills you need to address the issue. If you do not know how observe your feelings, express them in healthy ways, have difficult conversations, assert yourself, and talk to people about your emotions then none of the above will work. You need to engage in a process of learning how to do these things and learning how to use what you have to do what you need to do. 

To sum up

We all have vulnerabilities and given the right mix of context and feelings and we can start to feel overwhelmed. This is only natural and no one should blame themselves for feeling overwhelmed. 

We cannot and should not compare one person’s overwhelming experiences to another’s because these experiences simply tell us that people are different and have different vulnerabilities. One person is not better and another because they do not feel overwhelmed in the same context.

Feeling overwhelmed does not mean you are weak or incapable. It means the situation is extremely difficult to deal with. 

It is unlikely that anyone is able to deal with feeling overwhelmed on their own. 

Firstly, if you had the resources to deal with the situation then it is unlikely that you would feel overwhelmed in the first place. This is not your fault. Secondly, changing the context to resolve the feelings usually involves others to make lasting changes. 

Feeling overwhelmed does get resolved. But you can do a lot to reduce the vulnerabilities to feeling overwhelmed more quickly than you would normally by engaging in a process of personal development and developing the knowledge, skills, and abilities to deal with the emotions. This may involve understanding how you feel, expressing how you feel in more healthy ways, communicating how you feel to others, containing how you feel, holding people to account, and asserting what you want and need. 

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