Dealing with Feeling Overwhelmed

When was the last time you truly felt overwhelmed?

I have yet to meet a person that hasn’t dealt with this at some point in their lives.

For the many people who will face this feeling or have faced it before, it entails being completely overcome by an intense emotion brought on by something that is too challenging to manage and overcome. When confronted with being overwhelmed, it can be difficult to think and act rationally, and even function in a normal way.

Life and its challenges often leaves many of us feeling “in over our heads.” When this happens, it’s like the complexity of our world has surpassed our ability to cope effectively with it. This has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.

Overwhelmed minds get hijacked and overtaken by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems in the way they usually would. It’s a condition I see absolutely everywhere in my work, with my clients, and often, in my own life too. It’s more than just stress. Overwhelm is serious. When people tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, they tend to shut down and close themselves off to a solution, even though it may be right before their eyes.

What causes you to feel overwhelmed?

Overwhelm can be caused by many situations. It happens when a stressful situation gets to be just too much for us to handle. We often experience it when we have a heavy volume of work and our to-do list is daunting. Sometimes, a messy, cluttered home can lead to overwhelm. A personal tragedy, sickness, or a tough season can cause overwhelm. There can be a lot going on in our mind to make us feel stressed and like it’s all too much. Perhaps you have a very important project you’re under a lot of pressure to do well on or you’re waiting to hear back about something important and all the uncertainty is putting you on edge.

Overwhelm can also occur due to many smaller stressors. For example, missing an appointment may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your spouse or kids, or if you’ve been having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed appointment can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day, and it causes you to just lose control.

No matter the reason, if you feel the onset of overwhelm, there are some ways to help address the issue and cope better. I’ve put these steps into practice countless times, and they always work for me. Remember, you are stronger than you imagine, and I know you can do it!

1. Make a list:

Maybe you’re overwhelmed because your mind is bogged down by the sheer act of trying to remember everything. When you write down what you need to do, you release this mental burden. 

When you feel you have too much to do, start by identifying what those things are, and write them down. Write as much detail as you can about each item so you have nothing left in your head to remember.  It will all be on that list for you to refer back to. Review each item on the list and decide if you really need to do it.  Can you ask someone else to handle it?  Does it really need to be done at all?

Just this one, simple step of making a list can help you sort through some of the confusion in your mind, and help you focus on what has to be done next.

2. Prioritize!!

Prioritize all the things that you have to do.  Ask yourself if you’re working against deadlines that you made up for yourself or if they are required by someone else. Figure out what you can do each day, and what has to be moved to another day. And then, focus solely on your tasks for the day ahead. Don’t look to the following day, don’t make plans for those days – simply focus on the present.

And most importantly, every time you complete something, cross it off your list (it’s cathartic!)

3. Practice self-care

Be gentle and kind to yourself. When you’re overwhelmed, do things that feel good to you; things that are positive, comforting, healthy and uplifting. 

Whether this means you need to unplug, schedule a massage, take a nap, take a bubble bath or read a good book. It doesn’t need to cost money. You can even go outside for a run to help clear your mind. Whatever self-care looks like to you, take the time and effort to do it.

Maya Angelou says: “When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment.”

In my experience, the more control you feel you have over your life and your environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way.