Coping with overwhelm in these times

icap Psychotherapy and Counselling

Overwhelm is an emotional state, often accompanied by the thought that we have so much to do, and we don’t know where to start. We chat with Sinead Gannon, Clinical Services Manager at icap about how to manage overwhelming feelings.

When we feel stressed, anxious and panicked. We might find ourselves stuck in thoughts of all the things we are meant to be doing, mentally running through a never ending ‘to-do’ list.

It is often a state that is accompanied by a response of wanting to run or to collapse. This is our stress response. Overwhelm generally occurs when our usual boundaries are altered or removed. So for example, we might find it difficult to say no and end up over committing ourselves and then we feel overwhelmed.

Very often overwhelm shows up as a paralysis. We can’t seem to focus or we lose the ability to think rationally. We may feel angry and irritable. Physical symptoms such as shallow rapid breathing, chest pain, low energy, headaches, stomach upsets and insomnia can all be related to overwhelm.

It seems that overwhelm is a huge issue in these pandemic times. Far from the rhetoric of lockdown being a time when we have space and time to focus outside work and the opportunity for some down time, many of us have never had more plates to spin.

We are feeling the pressures of working from home, managing households, home-schooling children, trying to stay connected, supporting loved ones, grieving those we have lost, and grieving the loss of ‘normal’.

Easing out of lockdown

Easing out of lockdown can also feel overwhelming. We may be feeling anxious about the future, the prospect of further lockdowns and how we will be able to find our place in a socially distant world.

It feels like a lot because it is a lot. Feeling overwhelmed is a normal response to events that are overwhelming. It seems important to keep that in mind because if we don’t, we may start to judge our response and this can lead to us becoming self-critical.

So, what can we do to help manage our overwhelm?


We go about our daily lives without really being aware of the fact of our breathing. Our breath and our emotional states are inextricably linked. When we focus on our breath and change our breathing we can, in turn, change our emotional state. The reason this is so effective is that we activate our parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes our body. This is the ‘rest and digest’ part of our autonomic nervous system.

The simplest way of doing this is to lengthen our exhalation. There is a breathing technique called 7–11 breathing. The idea is that you breathe in for a count of 7, hold for a count of 2 and then breathe out to a count of 11.

It is best to practice this standing, placing a hand on your abdomen and ensure that you are breathing into your abdomen. If it feels too difficult to manage the 7–11 pattern, you can try breathing in for 4, holding for 2 and exhaling for 6 or 8. The key is that the exhalation must be longer than the inhalation.

It is helpful to do this 3 times a day: morning, lunchtime, evening. We need only do this for a short period of time, a couple of minutes or so.

Another exercise we can do to ground ourselves in our physical bodies when we feel overwhelmed is to place one hand on our chest, and the other on our forehead and focus on our breathing, noticing the feel of our hands on our body and our breath.

Rituals and Routines

All our usual structures and boundaries in the various aspects of our lives have been altered or removed. We have had to operate largely within our four walls with other members of our households in ways we never normally would. We have lost transitional spaces within our lives. These are the times when we can ease from one activity or part of our day, to the next.

What are our new rituals and routines and how can we organise these to support ourselves? It is easy to fall into a routine of getting out of bed in the morning and getting straight into work and/or childcare, neglecting breaks and spending hours at a time working at a screen or going from looking after children, straight into work calls with no transition.

It may be helpful to think about negotiating space/time with other members of the household and building in periods of downtime in the day. If we live alone, building in daily contact with others might feel helpful. It is also essential to try and ensure that we have time outside each day.


Self-care is a daily practice, of tending to the mind, body and spirit.

Central to that is our relationship with rest. So often, it seems we view rest as something we do once we get through our ‘to-do’ list. We tell ourselves we need to earn our right to rest as if it’s an indulgence, an inconvenience or an optional extra rather than a daily necessity for our mind, body and spirit.

We can easily start to believe that we must be productive above all else and that the amount we are doing is the sum of our worth. I wonder whether there is a cultural aspect to this in that as Irish people we may have a specific inheritance around the work that we do.

If we say we can’t rest…something needs to change. We might not be able to lighten our loads significantly at this time, but we can change our expectations of ourselves and how we carry our loads.

What would happen to our feelings of overwhelm if we gave ourselves permission to be less productive at this time, to ‘be’ more than ‘do’, to prioritise boundaries around our time and emotional resources and to respond compassionately to our feelings of overwhelm?

Further help and support

icap is the only specialist British-based counselling and psychotherapy service supporting people from the Irish community facing a range of emotional issues, including depression, anxiety and stress.

icap have set up a free confidential phone service to offer support to any Irish people who would like to talk about how they are doing in these times. The service is open to everyone, whether or not you have accessed icap services in the past or are thinking of doing so in the future.

Please call 0207 272 7906 and our team will be able to organise a time when someone will call you, to talk through your concerns and help you to find ways to get through this time, or visit the website for more details.

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