5 Coping Skills to Use When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time. Overwhelm happens in all areas of life, whether it’s related to stress at work, or uncomfortable conversations,  It can be a distressing feeling, but sometimes when you’re overwhelmed it can be hard to think of how to calm yourself down. You may have experienced this before, where you’re in a distressing situation and you feel unsure of what to do next. Developing some positive coping skills can help you in the moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or emotionally activated.

Why is it hard to think of what to do when you’re overwhelmed?

It comes down to the way our brains are wired. When your brain is on high alert, the rational section of your brain can go offline. Instead, your brain is looking out for danger and preparing to protect you. You might have heard of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, which is how your brain tries to protect you from danger. Depending on the situation, your brain is preparing to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn to keep you safe. 

In the midst of all this, it’s hard to think rationally. You might know you’re emotionally activated, but not be sure how to change the way you’re feeling. That’s when using coping skills can be especially helpful. 

What are coping skills?

Coping skills are strategies that you can use to manage stressful situations and intense emotions. They can be problem-based, designed to help you reduce the stress you’re feeling, or emotion-based, designed to help you manage the emotions that come up when you’re overwhelmed. 

Having coping skills ready to use can be really helpful when you’re feeling emotionally activated. We all experience distressing situations that can leave us feeling unable to function. If you know you have a hard time thinking of what to do when you’re overwhelmed, you can even write down a list of coping strategies you can try. Try keeping the list on the notes app on your phone so it’s always nearby and you can access it quickly. 

So, what are some things you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed? Here are 5 ideas to keep in mind the next time you’re emotionally activated: 

Paced breathing

Regulating your breathing can go a long way toward calming you down. There are many different paced breathing techniques that you can use, based on how you’d like to feel. Deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you feel calmer. 

Some common paced breathing exercises are: 

  • Square breathing: Also called box breathing. Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold for a count of 4, then begin again.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, then exhale for a count of 8. Try to make a “whoosh” sound as you exhale.
  • Alternate nostril breathing: Hold a hand over your nose, with a finger over each nostril. First, close your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril, then close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat on the other side and then start again.
  • Belly breathing: Place a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly. As you inhale, try to make the hand on your belly move out with the breath you take. Try to keep the hand on your chest still, so that your breaths go deep into your belly.

Grounding with the senses

Grounding exercises can help bring you back to the present moment by noticing the environment around you. A common grounding exercise involves using the senses to come back to the present. Here’s how you do it: 

  • List 5 things you can see
  • List 4 things you can hear
  • List 3 things you can feel
  • List 2 things you can smell
  • List 1 thing you can taste


Writing down your experiences and feelings can be a powerful release. When you’re overwhelmed, it may be helpful to use a journal as a place to “brain dump” or write down all the stray thoughts that are coming up for you. Sometimes the act of writing those thoughts down can help clear out your mind so you feel less overwhelmed.
Journaling can also help you spot patterns that you may not have noticed without writing them down. It becomes easier to see the overarching themes and patterns when you journal regularly, which can be helpful when developing new, helpful coping strategies. 

Move your body

Sometimes the best thing to do when your mind is overwhelmed is to drop back into your body and move around. Intense exercise can be helpful for calming distress, but you don’t have to go out and run a marathon to help calm yourself down with movement. Try dancing around to an upbeat playlist, going for a walk with a friend, playing with a pet, gardening, cooking, or cleaning your space. Sometimes even just working with your hands, like crafting or cooking, can be calming. 

You can also try things like running up and down stairs or doing jumping jacks if you’re looking for a little more intensity in your movement. Moving your body can be a helpful way to distract yourself until you’re feeling calm enough to think rationally again. 

Practice mindfulness 

It takes time to develop a mindfulness practice, but using mindfulness techniques can help you calm down when you’re emotionally activated. Try picking out a “happy place” you can go to in your mind when you’re distressed, like a warm beach or a favorite destination. When you feel overwhelmed, try to close your eyes and imagine you’re in that place. Really use your senses to get into the place in your head – what would you hear, see, smell, taste, touch?
Making a gratitude list is also something that you can do when you’re overwhelmed, and it can help you focus on positive things rather than the distress you’re feeling. 

There are also lots of meditation apps out there, many of them free. It may be helpful for you to pick out a few and try them out to see which you like best. A lot of them allow you to save certain meditation tracks so you can return to them later. You can select a few in advance that will be helpful when you’re overwhelmed so all you have to do is open the app and put your headphones on. 

Are you looking for more ways to cope when you’re feeling overwhelmed or emotionally activated?

Working with a therapist can help you figure out coping strategies that work for you and your situation while giving you a safe place to explore your experiences. Get in touch with our office today to set up an appointment.