Applied Psychology

Dealing with Overwhelming Emotions as an Adult

Feb 08, 2022 | By Saranne Durham
Dealing with Overwhelming Emotions as an Adult - SACAP
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At some point everyone feels overwhelmed. Most of us know what it’s like to feel as if you’re treading water to keep yourself from sinking. It could be caused by the list of things you need to do, a particular task or facing a new challenge. But what is the difference between feeling overwhelmed and overwhelming emotions? And is there a way to manage or reduce overwhelming emotions?

What does it mean to be Overwhelmed with Emotions?

Being emotionally overwhelmed means that you are experiencing intense emotions which you don’t have the capacity to manage or process. Most people are overwhelmed by negative emotions, like fear, anger or shame. However, those who have manic episodes could be overcome by euphoria, which is a positively associated emotion. Being emotionally overwhelmed, causes someone to be submerged by their feelings that stem from thinking continually about life’s problems. Leaving little space for much else to be thought of or processed. The result is that performing every-day tasks is difficult, as is their ability to act rationally, remember things, solve problems or think. Thus, for some their extreme feelings can be debilitating.

What causes Overwhelming Emotions?

Overwhelming emotions can be caused by a number of things. For example, stress, inter-personal relationship issues, traumatic experiences or pressure to perform. Illnesses, especially those that are prolonged or chronic, can also cause a surge of uncontrollable feelings. As can financial insecurity, significant life changes, death, trauma, abuse and bad nutrition. Each person is different, with varied stress tolerance levels and coping abilities. It’s unlikely to be one single thing that causes someone to reach their tipping point. But rather a build-up of issues and one more was just one too many.

The Result: Commons Sign and Symptoms

Being emotionally overwhelmed can affect our physical and emotional health as well as our cognitive capacity. Often someone who is overwhelmed by their emotions, loses control in situations that they would usually be fine in. This can result in tantrums and an outward projection of their emotions, for example rage, frustration and annoyance. Alternatively, someone may internalize their emotions. Typically, these stem from feelings of self-judgement and criticism, which are made worse by a negative inner voice. This causes the person to become anxious, depressed or withdrawing from those around them and activities they used to enjoy. Effectively, the result is changes in their overall behaviour.

7 Possible Behaviour Changes:

  1. Eating more or less than usual.
  2. Disrupted and random sleeping patterns or wanting to stay in bed.
  3. Treating others badly.
  4. Appearing confused or disoriented.
  5. Making an increasing number of mistakes.
  6. Excessively Procrastinating.
  7. Isolating oneself.
  8. Displaying uncharacteristic or unusually intense emotions.
  9. Overreacting to unimportant things.
  10. Having a short-fuse and being reactionary without thinking ahead.
  11. Feeling generally under-the weather and/or getting tension headaches or bouts of nausea.

Did You Know?

When we are overwhelmed, we are likely to cry more frequently and more easily. It’s something we all do, although some cry more than others. Research shows that women cry on average 30-64 times a year. Whereas men average 5 – 17 crying bouts per year. In contrast, 6-week-old babies cry an average of 68 minutes per day. Crying, usually, decreases when a baby is around 12-weeks old.

How to manage Overwhelming Emotions

It is possible to reduce overwhelming emotions. It may mean seeking professional assistance to identify and understand the root causes of your feelings. However, there are a number of self-help and self-care approaches which could work for you. They are quite helpful in the long run management of uncontrollable feelings and in dealing with potential emotional triggers.

1. Understand Your Emotions

Check in with yourself and ask yourself how you are feeling and what emotion is currently the most intense. Then think about what could be causing the emotion. Is there a repetitive trigger or is this something new? It can also be helpful to keep a mood journal. By recording what and how you feel at certain times, you can more easily figure out why you were particularly emotional. You will also be able to assess if you can decrease your stress by removing an emotional trigger or changing your approach within a situation.

2. Self-Care

Make sure you do the basics, get enough sleep, some exercise and eat properly. Take some time out to unplug from social media and take a break from screen time. Perhaps sit in the sunshine, curl up and read a book, cook something you particularly enjoy or take a bath. Many people find that exercise is a healthy outlet for intense emotions.

3. Acknowledge Yourself

Performance comparison and seeking to earn recognition from others can impact how you feel about yourself. It can also create a negative and overly critical inner-voice. Take time to celebrate your own achievements and personal victories. If you start to feel down, list your good qualities to boost your self-esteem without relying on others acknowledgements.

4. Create a Rated List

Grab a piece of paper and list everything you worried about – big and small things. Then rate them high or low in relation to how serious or trivial they are. This will allow you to see the bigger picture, reassess your priorities as well as create a prioritised to-do list.

5. Be More Assertive

Grab a piece of paper and list everything you worried about – big and small things. Then rate them high or low in relation to how serious or trivial they are. This will allow you to see the bigger picture, reassess your priorities as well as create a prioritised to-do list.

Becoming the One who Helps

Does a career where you assist others to manage their overwhelming emotions sound interesting? Would you like to make a positive difference in other people’s lives? Then consider a career in psychology or counselling. The South African School of Applied Psychology (SACAP), offers a range of campus-based and online courses. Contact a student advisor for more information or enrol online today.

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