Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

7 Tips for When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Reading Time: 7 minutes

For young adults, life is often overwhelming. There are a lot of reasons for feeling overwhelmed during these formative years. Academic pressure, financial concerns, relationship issues, work responsibilities, fear about the environment and politics … not to mention the ongoing challenge of establishing your identity and sense of self as a young adult. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes when there’s so much going on inside you and around you. That’s only natural. But if you aren’t able to relax and recover after stressful days and experiences, feelings of overwhelm can progress into a mental health issue. 

What Percentage of Young Adults Feel Overwhelmed?

Recent surveys show that young adults are more stressed out than any other adult generation. 

The American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America report surveyed more than 3,000 adults ages 18 and up. The results show that more than half of young adults (ages 18–34) feel overwhelmed most of the time. In addition, 46 percent of adults under 35 say that most days they are so stressed they can’t function. 

Among all those surveyed under 35, women, Black men, Latinx people, and LGBTQ young adults experienced the highest levels of stress. In fact, 62 percent of women reported being completely overwhelmed by stress on most days. 

Know the Facts

56% of young adults (ages 18 to 34) report that most days their stress is completely overwhelming, according to the APA’s 2022 Stress in America report.

Signs That You’re Overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed encompasses emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms, including the following:

  • Forgetting things more often
  • Feeling confused 
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Low energy
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Racing thoughts
  • Having a hard time with problem-solving
  • Negative emotions and worrying
  • Pessimistic thinking
  • Headaches and/or stomachaches
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • No longer enjoying activities you used to be interested in.

These signs of being overwhelmed can also be red flags for a mental health condition. Seeking support at this point is essential—from friends and family, a college counseling center, or a therapist. 

The Link Between Overwhelm and Mental Health Conditions

Being overwhelmed is not in itself a mental health diagnosis. However, feeling overwhelmed and stressed out can, over time, lead to mental health conditions like anxiety disorder or depression. Ongoing stress wears down resilience and keeps the mind and body in a state of fight or flight. Over time, that stress can make you more vulnerable to a mental health or physical health issue. That’s why it’s so important to take steps to reduce feelings of overwhelm. 

Furthermore, young adults who are living with or in recovery from a mental health condition might be more vulnerable to feeling defeated and overwhelmed. Mental health issues like PTSD, anxiety, and depression can impact emotional regulation and executive functioning. That means people with these conditions may have fewer resources for dealing with stressful situations. 

Ongoing stress and overwhelm can also catalyze substance abuse and substance use disorders. Young people use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate stress. A study by Binghamton University researchers showed that college students who experience high levels of stress are more likely to abuse substances, including excessive alcohol use

It is important for young adults to recognize that one behavior may lead to a domino effect. For instance, using drugs recreationally, abusing alcohol or using ‘study’ drugs not only affects brain chemistry but may affect diet and sleep, which may further alter brain function and brain maturity. Reduced brain maturity increases impulsivity, reduces emotional control and cognitive functions as well as GPA, eventually increasing mental distress with a potential long-lasting effects.

Lina Begdache
researcher and assistant professor of Health and Wellness Studies, Binghamton University

Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with Overwhelm

The following evidence-based approaches can be impactful for young adults dealing with stress and overwhelm. They are proven to not only reduce stress, but also boost overall well-being and physical health.  

Tip #1: Recognize You’re Not Alone in Feeling Overwhelmed

As the APA survey makes clear, more than half of all young adults experience overwhelming stress. That’s not a good thing. But it can be helpful to recognize that others are also struggling, and that it’s not a personal failing to feel overwhelmed. Consider joining a support group at your college or in your community. 

At the same time, don’t compare yourself to others who might deal with stress more easily. We each have different strengths and different areas that are difficult for us. Some people are more easily able to deal with stress, but might have a harder time in other areas. 

Tip #2 Use a Breathing Exercise to Get Centered

Breathing exercises are proven to reduce stress. In a study with university students, deep breathing was shown to lower self-reported stress as well as reducing cortisol and heart rate. So when you’re experiencing overwhelming thoughts, try simply taking a deep breath or two. Another study found that diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, is particularly effective for stress relief. The Cleveland Clinic recommends the following diaphragmatic breathing exercise:

  1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out, causing your hand to rise. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
  4. Tighten your stomach muscles, so that your stomach moves in, causing your hand to lower as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible.

Tip #3: Write About Your Feelings of Overwhelm

Writing about your emotions improves your mental health. If you’re feeling defeated and overwhelmed, writing down the negative thoughts and emotions can help defuse them. You might start by venting onto the page about your feelings of overwhelm. 

You can also use journaling to get to the root of the overwhelm. Is there something bigger that is making all the smaller things seem insurmountable? Writing can help you take a step back and better understand what’s really going on. 

Tip #4: Reach Out to People You Trust

Social support is a powerful factor in reducing overwhelm and increasing resilience. Connect with a family member or close friend—someone who appreciates and values you. Make sure to prioritize these authentic connections in your daily life. 

Research shows that a strong network of social relationships improves young adults’ mental health and stress levels. The more support we have, the less likely we are to feel overwhelmed.

Tip #5: Make a List of What’s Overwhelming You

Looking carefully at what’s overwhelming you can make it feel less scary and threatening. Write down a list of each thing that’s creating stress in your life, whether practical or personal. Next, consider which action steps can you take to address each item on your list. Would a tutoring session help you do better on a midterm or paper? Can you ask for assistance with a project at work? If issues within a friend group feeling overwhelming, could you all get together and have an honest conversation? 

It’s true that some big, stressful issues are outside our control—like political and social inequity or the future of the planet. But taking control of the things that are in our court frees up energy for coping emotionally with those that aren’t.

Tip #6: Be Kind to Yourself

Practicing kindness and self-compassion encompasses the following approaches: 

  • Step up your self-care, including getting enough sleep, eating well, taking more breaks, and exercising.
  • Do fun things you enjoy, like getting out in nature, listening to music, or reading a good book.
  • Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend: Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can and you deserve support and time to rest.
  • Accept where you are: Instead of fighting against feelings of overwhelm, be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling.
  • Access the benefits of physical touch: Ask a friend or family member for a hug, get a bodywork treatment, or simply place both your hands on your heart. Giving yourself loving physical touch or receiving it from others is proven to reduce stress and overwhelm.

Tip #7: Talk to a Mental Health Professional

Healthy device use also includes minimizing engagement that doesn’t benefit you. Above all, reduce time spent on social Many young adults judge themselves for getting stressed out. They may think, “I get overwhelmed so easily” or “I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by this.” But instead of judging yourself, reach out for support. That’s particularly important if feelings of overwhelm are starting to affect your daily functioning and your overall mood. A therapist, psychiatrist, or clinician at a treatment center can offer medical advice, a diagnosis, and treatment options.

How Treatment at Newport Institute Addresses Stress and Overwhelm

At Newport Institute, we understand that it’s impossible to avoid feeling overwhelmed sometimes. That’s just the nature of life. Therefore, our treatment focuses on supporting young adults to build emotional resilience and healthy coping skills, so they can navigate the ups and downs of life no matter what they face.

In addition, we treat underlying trauma and attachment wounds that may be causing mental health or co-occurring disorders. Once young adults uncover and process traumatic experiences, joy and confidence take the place of self-doubt and feelings of overwhelm. 

Contact us today to learn more about our specialized approach to treating emerging adults. We serve young people ages 18–35 (depending on location) at our residential and outpatient locations around the country.

Key Takeaways

  • Emerging adulthood can be a particularly stressful and overwhelming stage of life. More than half of young adults report that most days their stress is completely overwhelming, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America report.
  • Feeling overwhelmed encompasses emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms, including difficulty focusing and concentrating, low energy, headaches and stomachaches, and lack of interest in things you used to enjoy.
  • Ongoing stress wears keeps the mind and body in a state of fight or flight. Over time, that stress can make young adults more vulnerable to a mental or physical health issue.
  • Evidence-based coping skills like breathing exercises, social connection, self-compassion, and journaling can help ease feelings of overwhelm.
  • Mental health treatment can support young adults to build resilience for navigating stressors, while uncovering and healing trauma that may be keeping them from moving forward.

Frequently Asked Questions About Feeling Overwhelmed

What is an overwhelmed feeling?

Racing thoughts, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and feeling defeated are all associated with being overwhelmed. 

How do I stop feeling so overwhelmed?

In general, feeling overwhelmed indicates that a person’s resources or resilience are not equal to the stressors they are experiencing. Lifestyle changes, self-care exercises, and support from a mental health professional can help build resilience and give you more tools for dealing with overwhelm. 

What is emotional overwhelm a symptom of?

Emotional overwhelm can be a symptom of a mental health condition like PTSD, anxiety, or depression. 

Is it normal to feel completely overwhelmed?

Everyone feels overwhelmed at one time or another. It’s a natural part of life. That said, feeling completely overwhelmed all or most of the time is a sign that additional support is needed. 

Is overwhelm a form of anxiety?

Overwhelm is not a form of anxiety. But frequent feelings of overwhelm can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Because anxiety saps energy and creates feelings of distress, it can result in being more easily overwhelmed.

Is being overwhelmed a mental illness?

No, feeling overwhelmed is not a mental health diagnosis. However, it can be a sign that you are struggling with a condition such as anxiety, depression, or traumatic stress.


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Mental Health / October 24, 2022

Newport Institute

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