What Is Emotional Overload And How Can You Deal With It?

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There are very few humans, if any, who exist in an entirely-pressure free state. We all have things to do, both in and outside of work, and that creates some kind of pressure every day to complete those tasks.

A little pressure is no bad thing, but if your workload gets too much then you can quickly feel overwhelmed. This is a state of emotional overload and it can be tough to recover from it.

For more information on what emotional overload is and five practical steps for dealing with it, we spoke to Dr Alan Watkins, a psychologist and neuroscientist who has coached the GB Olympic rowing team.

What is emotional overload?

People have a view of how many items they can handle and their perception of how many items they’re being asked to do. Both of those are perceptions and it’s the gap between the two that matters. If you think you can do ten items in a day and you think you’re being asked to do 15, you feel overloaded.

If you imagine an upside-down U-shaped curve there’s an upslope and a downslope. The upside is healthy stress, which is why people work well to a deadline. All human beings need a bit of pressure to perform. But if you overcook the pressure, then you go over the top onto the downslope.

What does emotional overload result in?

Initially it shifts you into a negative emotional state. That state varies from person to person. Some people start to feel overwhelmed, some people feel panic, some feel scared. Which of the negative emotions they experience as a consequence of overload will vary person by person.

People can usually recognise the moment where it all gets too much for them and they realise they’re underperforming. This relationship between pressure and performance has been known for more than 100 years – it was first described by a couple of psychologists called Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. This relationship between pressure and performance has been demonstrated time and time again in lots of scenarios, and it’s true for human beings, mice, computers, oil rigs… Too much pressure in a system and you start to impair the performance and ultimately the system will break.

How To Deal With Emotional Overload

1. Learn To Spot It

The first step is to realise if you are on the upslope or the downslope. One of the signs of being on the downslope is a loss of self awareness, so you often need people around you to flag it.

Once you’re aware of the relationships between pressure and performance you should be monitoring it continuously. You’ve got to know where your balance point is, and keep yourself on the healthy side. If you’re on the healthy side of the curve, you can build greater levels of performance.


Get your breathing under control. It’s something very concrete you can do. There are 12 dimensions to your breath you can learn to control, and most people are confused as to which are the most important, which is why people will mistakenly say “take a few deep breaths”. Don’t bother with that, it won’t work. What does help is rhythmic breathing. That means a fixed ratio of in to out, so four seconds in, six out, and so on. If you breathe rhythmically it will stabilise your biology.

There’s an acronym BREATHE. Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Every day. Rhythmically means that fixed ratio from in to out. Evenly means smoothly, a fixed volume per second. And your attention should be in the centre of your chest, not your belly.

3. Manage Your Emotions

Once you stabilise your biology the next thing is to get control of the whole emotion. Most human beings have no control of their emotions which is why they think other people are doing it to them. “You made me feel angry, you did it to me.” The truth is no-one is doing anything to you, you’re doing it to yourself. When you feel angry because someone has behaved badly, no-one has injected you with chemicals to make you feel angry, you basically created that biological state in yourself.

The game-changer is taking what we call radical ownership. Every emotion is created by you, in you. If you can accept that simple truth your life will change dramatically. Because then you can say to yourself, “If I’m creating it, I can create something different.”

Practise shifting your emotions on the couch when you’re not under threat, until you get really good at it. You’ll fail if the first time you practise it is in a state of crisis – that’s too much pressure.

4. Simplify And Clarify

What often flips people from the downslope to the upslope is simplification and clarification. If someone – a manager, colleague or partner – can simplify the task you have on your plate, or clarify it, that takes the pressure out of the system and you start to perform again.

5. Use A Stop-Do List

A to-do list can help, and sometimes a stop-do list is useful too. Look at your tasks and move those that aren’t urgent or necessary to a stop-do, or do-later list. Shrink the to-do list to just the stuff that’s really key.

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Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.