Navigating the Overwhelm

Losing your routine, sense of normalcy, employment, social life or a family member is a lot to deal with all at once. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Life-altering events can shatter your familiar assumptions and expectations about the world; the belief that it is relatively predictable and safe (Bessel van der Kolk). Traumatic events may fragment your sense of self or your belief about God and others. These events and the disruption of your internal world can overwhelm your ability to grasp, adapt and cope with what has happened.

This has happened multiple times in my life. I experienced a traumatic event so intense as a child, it culminated in emotional dysregulation and post-traumatic stress. Six years later I walked into a hospital to find my father lying lifeless with a sheet pulled up to his chin. The emotional overwhelm in that moment was so powerful, I dissociated for the first time. As an adult, when my health rapidly declined and I was diagnosed with disease, the emotional overload was almost too much to bear.

Feeling mentally or emotionally overwhelmed “occurs when the intensity of your feelings [or circumstances] outmatches your ability to manage them” (Good Therapy). When you can’t manage all that’s being thrown at you, it can lead to unexplained fatigue, overreacting, paralyzing fear, trouble concentrating, lethargy or inability to do daily tasks. It can disrupt your sleep, your mood, your appetite, your interests, and your desire for social interaction. Feeling overwhelmed can also hijack your ability to think and act rationally.

How You Can Cope

Recognize that your mind has been trying to grasp and rapidly process your circumstances at warp speed. You’ve had a lot thrown at you in a short span of time. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your situation, it’s completely natural given what you’re facing. Try not to be hard on yourself if you are struggling to cope.

The most important thing you can do when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed is to slow things down. When you’re bombarded by too much too fast, it can be difficult to differentiate between the events, triggers and your emotions. You can’t process it well. Writing down what you’re experiencing or talking with a trusted friend or counselor can help you sort through it all.

  • What are your stressors?
  • What emotions are the most overwhelming for you right now?
  • How has your situation impacted your view of the world, yourself, others, and God?
  • What do you need right now?
  • How can you take care of yourself in a way that meets those needs?

The Psalmist knew what it was like to be overwhelmed and faint in spirit. He said, “Before [the Lord] I pour out my complaint, before Him I tell my trouble. When my spirit is overwhelmed within me, You watch over my path” (Ps 142:3-4). The Psalmist didn’t try to suck it up or put on a happy face. He freely lamented his feelings and poured out his troubles before God. We may feel overwhelmed, but God is not. Your feelings are not too much for Him, and your situation is not more than He can bear. He watches over your path and will give you the strength and sustaining power you need for today (Ps 55:22)

Today is all we have, so focus on the present. Consider breaking the day into hour segments. Decreasing the amount of water in the fire hose will help you feel less flooded. As you deal with one segment at a time, it will increase your awareness of time and sense of control. Think about how your belief system has been challenged lately and how you can restore it. Instead of trying to handle the next 2-6 weeks all at once, focus on one step at a time; one day at a time.


This post is part of a 10-part series on how to successfully navigate your emotions during a crisis. Check out the other emotions in this series below: 

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