Dealing with feeling overwhelmed

There are many reasons why we might feel overwhelmed. These moments can feel intense and difficult to manage. Below are some helpful ways to calm ourselves in the heat of the moment.

These techniques may not fix everything completely, but some people find them a helpful way to cope.

If you often feel overwhelmed then it could be helpful to get support from someone. This could be from your GP, Health Visitor, Midwife or local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service.


“Grounding” is useful when our thoughts and feeling feel very intense. Some people find this technique useful when they are anxious or when experiencing flashbacks.

Grounding is about using your senses such as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to bring your focus to what is currently around you. Here is a helpful grounding exercise called “5-4-3-2-1”:

Try to notice:

  • 5 things you can see. Sometimes choosing a colour can help. Eg. Look for 5 green things

  • 4 things you can hear

  • 3 things you can feel or touch. (eg. The feel of your jumper, or a hand cream. You could notice how your feet feel against the ground as you walk)

  • 2 things you can smell

  • 1 thing you can taste

Sometimes it might be really easy to notice things, other times there may be nothing noticeable. For example, if you are drinking coffee, it might be easy to notice a taste. However, when you are not eating or drinking anything you might notice that you can’t taste anything in particular. Both are okay!

Breathing exercises

Deep breathing sends signals to our brain to relax. Here are a couple of breathing exercises to try:

Balloon breathing

Slowly breathe in. Imagine your tummy is like balloon. As you breathe in, notice how your chest and belly naturally lift and expand. No need to push, just focus on a taking a deep breath. When you are ready, breathe out and imagine a balloon deflating.

Count of 3

Breathe in as you count to 3. Hold your breath for 3. Then breathe out again for the count of 3. Repeat a few times.

7/11 breathing

Breathe in for the count of 7. Then breathe out for the count of 11. This exercise can be adapted if the count feels too long. The key thing it to make sure that your out breath in longer than the breath in.


Pausing helps create space between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This skill, developed by Marsha Linehan, can help us regain some control.

Stop – When your emotions are high, thoughts are unhelpful, or your behaviour is impulsive – Stop. Give yourself time to pause.

Take a breath – Take a deep breath & a step back. A literal step back can help to really break from your automatic responses in the moment.

Observe – Ask yourself: What am I responding to? What do I notice about the situation around me? What can I notice about myself? What are my thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and behaviours right now?

Perspective –Are these thoughts fact or an opinion? Do my emotions fit the current situation? How important is this to me? What would I say to a friend if they were in this situation?

Proceed & practice what works – Proceed with awareness. What is the best thing to do now? What works for me? What is fair in this situation?

Ride the wave

Imagine your emotions are like waves. Just like on the beach, many waves come and go. Sometimes the waves might be gentle, and sometimes they might fiercely crash on the shore before falling away.

Likewise, our emotions can vary in intensity, but will always peak and then fall away again. Emotions are also felt physically in the body. For example, your heart rate might change if you’re anxious, you might feel hot when you are angry, and so on. This link between our emotions and how we physically feel can make some emotions feel very uncomfortable and difficult to experience.

Some people find it helpful to imagine they are riding a wave. The image reminds them that the feelings will come and then go. It can make the feelings seem more manageable. When we try to pretend we are fine by pushing feelings away, it takes a lot of energy!

Picturing the wave allows us to acknowledge the feeling whilst remembering that the feeling, however intense right now, will fade. Sometimes the emotion might fall away quite quickly, but often it can take time. For example, it can take up to 20 minutes for our heart rate to fully return to a normal resting rate.

As we learn to ride the wave of our emotion instead of trying to push them aside, we regain some control. We are not our emotions. Knowing that our heart rate will return to normal again, either naturally or by using coping skills such as breathing exercise, can help us feel more prepared to face whatever is stirring up the emotion.


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