Finish that work assignment. Remember to call the babysitter. You need to do laundry. Get a present for your mother’s birthday. Are you ready for that meeting tomorrow? The lawn is getting too long. Isn’t it time for another dental checkup? The sink is full of dirty dishes!
If your head often sounds like this, but you spend more time than you’d like to admit curled up on the couch and scrolling on your phone, you may be experiencing overwhelm paralysis. This phenomenon is a vicious cycle that can significantly impact mental health and daily functioning, so let’s dive in to understand it!
What is Overwhelm Paralysis?
Also called “Task Paralysis,” overwhelm paralysis goes beyond typical feelings of stress. When tasks pile up in your busy life, the mountain of pending obligations can feel, well, overwhelming. Your brain sees your extensive to-do list as a threat, pumping you full of stress hormones every time you think about it. So, you choose “flight” from your available flight/fight response, and avoid those tasks in favor of more pleasant activities such as scrolling on your phone.
Meanwhile, life goes on and obligations continue to mount. Eventually, the sheer weight of the undone tasks causes your nervous system to collapse, leaving you “paralyzed” with dread and unable to tackle even the simplest items on your list. It becomes challenging to make decisions, and you find yourself lying in bed or sitting on the couch, wondering why you can’t even do “easy” things. This can create a debilitating cycle that hinders both your productivity and well-being.
Signs You're Suffering from Overwhelm Paralysis
Many people experiencing overwhelm paralysis chide themselves for being “lazy” or “undisciplined.” They think they should be able to simply will themselves to complete tasks and feel guilty when they can’t. It’s common for people in this situation to engage in negative self-talk, further compounding the guilt and stress that they are under.
If you’re finding yourself mysteriously unable to take action, look out for these symptoms of overwhelm paralysis:
- Emotional symptoms: Persistent anxiety, frustration, and irritability.
- Physical symptoms: Fatigue, headaches, and disruptions in sleep patterns.
- Behavioral symptoms: Procrastination, avoidance, and difficulty making decisions.
What Causes Overwhelm Paralysis?
Several aspects of life can contribute to overwhelm and trigger paralysis:
- Too much on your plate - How much are you responsible for in your daily life? If you are in charge of keeping the house clean, keeping the lawn maintained, parenting children, leading a club or social group, working full time, and other duties, you may simply have too much on your plate. A high mental load is invisible, but it can keep you in a constant state of overwhelm.
- Work stress - Most of us spend a large portion of our time at work or working remotely, and many of us attach identity and self-worth to our jobs. If you work in a toxic environment, feel inadequate at work, or are overloaded with work, this can contribute to overwhelm.
- Unhealthy family/relationship dynamics - The chronic stress and frustration of a toxic or unhealthy relationship can weigh heavily on you, severely lowering your threshold for overwhelm.
- Financial pressure - Anxiety about your ability to pay rent or bills can hang over your head at all times, as well as require you to put off wants/needs and work more hours.
- Societal expectations - You may feel an obligation to “keep up” with others, put on a certain attitude or appearance, or strive to fit into others’ expectations. This creates constant extra stress, which contributes to overwhelm.
- Depression and anxiety - Depression and anxiety lower your threshold for stress and make you more subject to overwhelm.
- Neurodivergence - People with ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions are prone to overwhelm paralysis due to the way their brain processes tasks and stimuli.
If you are in one or more of the situations above, you may be more at risk for overwhelm paralysis. Recognizing these triggers is crucial for addressing overwhelm paralysis effectively.
The Impact of Overwhelm Paralysis
Chronic overwhelm can have a profound effect on mental health. The resulting paralysis can impact your life in many ways, including:
- Increased risk for anxiety and depression
- Decreased job performance due to missed deadlines and uncompleted tasks
- Damaged relationships due to others perceiving you as flaky, unreliable, or uncaring
- Financial consequences such as late fees on missed payments or loss of income
- Decreased physical health as a result of poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, and/or lack of exercise
Understanding the long-term consequences underscores the importance of addressing overwhelm paralysis promptly.
What To Do About Overwhelm Paralysis
Once you realize you’re in the cycle, breaking out can seem daunting, but it is possible! Take these steps to escape overwhelm paralysis and prevent it from happening again:
- Start with something small - Getting started is the hardest part, but accomplishing even one thing on your to-do list can provide you with motivation to keep going. Instead of starting your day by saying “I should tackle that huge work project,” tell yourself “I’m going to reply to that simple email from X.” Focus on that one small thing. When you’ve accomplished it, pick another small thing that you can do to keep moving forward.
- Break it down - Eventually, you will have to get to bigger tasks. It helps to break big tasks down into smaller stages so that they feel less overwhelming. If you need to plan a birthday party, for example, make a list of all the steps involved: decide on guest list, decide on date and time, pick venue, pick theme, etc.
- Identify what got you here - Getting started on your to-do list won’t change the conditions that put you into paralysis. Take an honest look at your daily life and the list of triggers above. What is contributing to your overwhelm?
- Make changes - Once you’ve identified the causes of your overwhelm, make actual changes to mitigate it. Do you have too much on your plate? Delegate, outsource, and give away responsibilities. It is ok to step down from an obligation if it is negatively impacting your mental health!
- Set boundaries - A lot of overwhelm can come from poor boundaries, as you feel inundated with the needs and desires of others and put them above your own needs. Work on setting boundaries to put yourself first.
- Establish self care practices - A big part of prioritizing yourself is incorporating stress-relief and self-care techniques into daily routines.
- Seek support - Seeking support is the best thing you can do to prevent overwhelm paralysis. You may need support from family for finances or childcare, support at work to help you manage your workload, or support from a trained mental health professional to learn techniques to prevent burnout.
- Consider getting tested - If overwhelm paralysis is a frequent occurrence for you, consider getting a psychological assessment to check for ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions.
Therapy for Overwhelm Paralysis and Burnout
Deeper issues often lie at the root of overwhelm paralysis. A mental health professional can help you work through anxiety and depression, past trauma, poor boundaries, unhealthy relationships, and negative self-image. At Medens Health, our talented therapists can help you foster self-awareness, establish boundaries, and prioritize self-care so that you can navigate overwhelm and regain a sense of control. Reach out to us by phone or text at (833) 624-5400, send us a message using our online contact form, or get started here.
The information provided in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided in this blog is solely at your own risk. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical or mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who is qualified to give you safe, professional, and ethical advice regarding your mental health.
If you or someone you are responsible for is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should call 9-1-1 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room.