What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed or Helpless

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 07, 2021
4 min read

It's normal to feel overwhelmed, helpless, or even hopeless once in a while, especially in this demanding world. If you're feeling that way, some of the following coping mechanisms might help.

Different coping mechanisms work for different people. The following suggestions can help. If one doesn't work for you, consider trying a different one.

Set boundaries with work. For some people, working too much can lead to feeling overwhelmed or burned out. Set boundaries regarding how many hours you will work daily and how much work you'll take on after hours, if needed. Consider delegating job duties or tasks to your colleagues so that you can overcome feelings of overwhelm.

Try relaxation techniques. There are many ways to relax that can help you feel better. You can try:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Visualization techniques
  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Spending time outside
  • Doing something creative
  • Eating or drinking something you enjoy

Write down your plans. If you're feeling so overwhelmed that it's hard to focus, try writing down a minute-by-minute plan for the next hour or so. For example, you can write down that for the next five minutes you will do deep breathing exercises, then for 10 minutes you will drink some tea, and so on.

Talk to someone you know. Your community, friends, and family can support you. You can also turn to other supportive people in your life, like clergy members. They can listen to you and remind you that things will get better.

Talk to a therapist or counselor.  You can try seeing a therapist or counselor. They may be able to help you change negative thought patterns or figure out how to structure your life so it leads to less overwhelm.

Call a hotline. If you feel you need to talk to someone right away but no one in your life is available, call a crisis hotline, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. Someone there will pick up the phone and talk with you about whatever's bothering you.

Make a list of supportive people in your life. If you're feeling down and out, reflect on everyone you know who you could call for a chat and write down their names and phone numbers. This will make it easy for you to reach out when you're feeling low.

Have a healthy lifestyle. Making healthy lifestyle choices can improve your mental health. This can include things like eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, sleeping well, and exercising a few times a week.

Keep a journal. Some people find that writing down their thoughts and feelings in a journal helps them process their emotions. If you're stuck on what to write down, start with documenting situations that happened during your day and how they made you feel.

Reduce potentially harmful coping mechanisms. If you typically use alcohol or other substances to feel better, consider switching to healthier options instead.

How do you know if you're feeling overwhelmed? Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling forgetful 
  • Getting confused easily
  • Experiencing trouble focusing
  • Racing thoughts
  • Reduced ability to solve problems
  • Negative thoughts and a pessimistic outlook 
  • Feeling low energy
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Not feeling like doing activities you once enjoyed

If you experience these symptoms for two weeks or longer, they might lead to depression and affect your ability to function. If this is the case, contact your doctor or a mental health professional for help. 

If someone you know says they are feeling overwhelmed or helpless, there are things you can do to support them. 

Be a good listener. Listening is more important than giving advice. You probably can't fix your friend or family member's problems, but you can show them that you're supportive by listening with a compassionate and empathetic ear.

Encourage them to get help. If someone has been overwhelmed for a while, they may be depressed. You can encourage them to see their doctor or seek the help of a therapist.

Be an example. Exercise regularly and make healthy lifestyle choices to show your friend or family member that a positive outlook is possible.

Set boundaries and be realistic. Set boundaries that relate to how much you can help someone and then stick to those boundaries. That will help you avoid getting burned out while helping your loved one.

Help out. When someone is feeling overwhelmed, they may find it challenging to do daily tasks. If you notice some dishes in the sink or an overflowing trash can, help out if you are able.

Pay attention. Look out for the following behaviors that might indicate suicidal ideation:

  • Talking about suicide
  • Getting their affairs in order
  • Giving away beloved objects
  • Talking about a future or world that doesn't involve them
  • Reckless behavior
  • Self-harm
  • Saying they have no reason to live
  • Talking about being a burden to others

If you think someone may attempt suicide, it's OK to ask them if they are considering it. If they are, simply listening to them without judgment can be helpful. Encourage them to get professional help or have them call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. You can also call the hotline yourself to get support.