The Subtle Effects of Trauma – Overwhelm

Trauma Overwhelm

When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we feel completely consumed by our emotional state. All of us may feel emotionally overwhelmed at some point in our lives, but for those who have survived trauma, overwhelm can happen much more frequently and at unexpected times. When we are overwhelmed, acting and thinking rationally can be extremely difficult. Normal functioning is compromised as we feel as though we have no control over emotions. The experience of overwhelm is deeply uncomfortable and, when it happens frequently, our personal and professional lives can be significantly impacted.


Why do we feel overwhelmed?

Overwhelming feelings arise when a person feels that life stressors are too much to manage by themselves. Overwhelm is more than just stress. Many of us can face stress and eventually return to normal. This ‘returning to normal’ can be difficult for some trauma survivors as our ability to effectively manage stress has been compromised by our past experiences.[1]

To be emotionally overwhelmed is to feel as though one is submerged or drowning in their own thoughts and emotions to a degree at which all sense of agency is lost and the person is psychologically paralysed or ‘frozen’.[2]

Overwhelm can happen for a variety of reasons and what might cause overwhelm in one moment may not cause it in another. It can occur in short bursts, or it can persist for much longer depending on the individual, their relative ability to manage stress, and the occurrence of other stressors in close succession. Common factors that can contribute to feeling emotionally overwhelmed include[3]:

  • Persistent work stress and burnout
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Relationship problems
  • Poor physical or mental health
  • Improper nutrition
  • Financial insecurity
  • Time pressure
  • Personal traumas such as abuse or neglect
  • Poor sleep hygiene


The Biology of Emotional Overwhelm

Emotional overwhelm can take many forms. Negative emotions are more likely to come up when we feel overwhelmed, such as anger, fear, and anxiety. For many, describing the experience can be difficult due to its overwhelming nature.

Overwhelming negative emotions strongly impact our physiology due to the release of the stress hormone cortisol.[4] As we begin to feel overwhelmed, cortisol is released and surges throughout the body. The surge of cortisol leaves us overloaded with anxiety and it can feel there is no outlet, so it is kept, frozen, in the body. As more cortisol is released and anxiety builds, our serotonin stores begin to deplete.[5] Serotonin is one of the main chemicals involved in alleviating and preventing feelings of depression and anxiety.[6] As a result of increased cortisol and depleted serotonin, we are subject to feelings of hopelessness and despair, which perpetuate the overwhelm.

The experience of overwhelm is distressing and deeply uncomfortable. It often manifests as maladaptive anger, increased irritability, and seemingly endless worry. The experience can manifest physically as lashing out, crying, or through panic attacks. These behaviours happen in tandem with an increased heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and even muscle tension and chest pain.


Tools for dealing with Emotional Overwhelm

Frequent emotional overwhelm is a sign of unresolved trauma.[7] Trauma can be treated and managed with the aid of professional help, but there are some basic tools and techniques you can use outside of therapy, many of which can be learned and developed within therapy sessions. Whatever the reason for your feelings of overwhelm, consider the following tips to help you cope.



Anyone who has experienced emotional overwhelm or panic knows that resistance to the feeling does not help, and can in fact worsen the experience. It is important for those suffering to remember that anxiety is a normal, natural experience. Acceptance is a tool we can use to allow ourselves to experience whatever comes up without too much harsh judgment or shame.

Unfortunately, some of us believe that crying is a sign of weakness. However, it is important to accept that crying is just as normal as laughter and need not be met with judgment or perceived as weakness, and is even considered to be an effective self-soothing behaviour.[8]


Challenge your Thoughts

Overwhelm and anxiety are fueled by further worry and rumination. If you feel able, challenge your maladaptive thoughts and judgments to prevent your thoughts from fueling the fire of your experience. Ask yourself if the thoughts you are having are in any way reasonable or helpful. Again, if you feel able, try to replace some of your negative thoughts with more positive ones, such as thoughts of gratitude and self-acceptance. This is by no means easy in the throes of overwhelm, but it is possible and can make a significant difference to your outcomes.


Use Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing

Consciously taking in deep, full breaths signals to the nervous system that you are not in danger. Overwhelm and anxiety relate to activation of the sympathetic nervous system[9] (SNS), and relaxation and feelings of safety and social engagement are associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system[10] (PNS). Deep breathing encourages activation of the PNS and reduces SNS activity[11], so it helps you return to a state of calm relaxation. Mindful exercises like yoga and Tai Chi can encourage one to develop conscious, deep breathing techniques.


Gather Resources

Developing skills for relaxation, such as mindfulness and meditation practices, can go a long way in helping the mind and body come out of overwhelm and return to a place of calm. Other than these tools, it helps to educate oneself about the nature of anxiety, panic, and how the nervous system functions. Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger, Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, and Benjamin Fry’s The Invisible Lion are all excellent resources for learning about the nervous system and how it is affected in both the short and long term by traumatic experiences.


The Benefits of Therapy for Emotional Overwhelm

While at times we may be able to manage stress, there are other times when doing so seems impossible. It is normal to feel overwhelmed from time to time, but if you believe that you are feeling overwhelmed too frequently, then speak to a mental health professional.

Therapy can be of significant help in identifying stressors and addressing how we react and respond. With the support and guidance of a trained professional therapist, we can better process our issues and gain insight into their root causes. Understanding what is happening in the mind and body sets up for a calmer, more compassionate frame of mind later when feelings of overwhelm begin to come up.

When seeking therapy, the approach taken should incorporate effective modalities such as meditation, exploration of the mind-body connection, and grounding techniques. With a combination of learned coping and self-management techniques and professional therapy, we give ourselves the best chance of preventing or minimising the experience of overwhelm and living a life less impacted by an inability to tolerate distress.


If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Marshall-Berenz, Erin C et al. “Multimethod study of distress tolerance and PTSD symptom severity in a trauma-exposed community sample.” Journal of traumatic stress vol. 23,5 (2010): 623-30. doi:10.1002/jts.20568

[2] Riskind, John H et al. “Dysfunctional Freezing Responses to Approaching Stimuli in Persons with a Looming Cognitive Style for Physical Threats.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 7 521. 19 Apr. 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00521

[3] “Warning Signs And Risk Factors For Emotional Distress”. Samhsa.Gov, Accessed 26 Nov 2020.

[4] Yaribeygi, Habib et al. “The impact of stress on body function: A review.” EXCLI journal vol. 16 1057-1072. 21 Jul. 2017, doi:10.17179/excli2017-480

[5] Tafet, G E et al. “Correlation between cortisol level and serotonin uptake in patients with chronic stress and depression.” Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience vol. 1,4 (2001): 388-93. doi:10.3758/cabn.1.4.388

[6] Cowen, Philip J, and Michael Browning. “What has serotonin to do with depression?.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 14,2 (2015): 158-60. doi:10.1002/wps.20229

[7] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from:

[8] Gračanin, Asmir et al. “Is crying a self-soothing behavior?.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 5 502. 28 May. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502

[9] Roth, Walton T et al. “Sympathetic activation in broadly defined generalized anxiety disorder.” Journal of psychiatric research vol. 42,3 (2008): 205-12. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2006.12.003

[10] de Looff, P C et al. “Associations of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity in job stress and burnout: A systematic review.” PloS one vol. 13,10 e0205741. 18 Oct. 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205741

[11] Gerritsen, Roderik J S, and Guido P H Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 397. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

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