Overwhelm. I bet you’ve been there; the times when you’ve almost been immobilised by having too much to do and too little time to do it in.
I know I have. Very many times in fact, especially when I was younger.
Life is a constant juggling act, and every now and again we are all faced with the fear that we have more on our plates than we can handle.
I think I can speak for everyone when I say that there’s nothing worse than that sickening feeling that arises when you think the intensity of your thoughts and emotions is about to get the better of you.
There’s a sense of being out of control, as though you’re unequipped to handle not only what you have to do, but how you feel as well.
So what triggers such feelings?
It can be different for different people.
Some people find they are more prone to this type of anxiety due to inherent personality traits, while for others it may be triggered by specific situations or life events.
Common causes include:
- insufficient time to complete tasks
- sleep deprivation
- excessive career demands
- relationship problems
- underlying physical or mental health conditions
- financial difficulties
- life transitions, such as buying a house or having a baby
- the death of a loved one
- and, shock and trauma, experienced either in the past or recently.
If you are prone to getting overwhelmed, or it is something you’re struggling with right now, here are 9 things you can do to alleviate it.
1. Take a moment to be still and breathe
When you feel the symptoms of anxiety (a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, an inability to focus or think clearly and, in extreme cases, full-blown feelings of danger, panic, or dread) take a moment to be still.
Literally stop what you are doing and stand – or sit – still.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive, especially if pressure is building and deadlines are looming, but being still even for a few moments will help to calm your mind and your body.
You probably know that there is a real and direct link between the length, depth and pace of your breath and your state of mind.
When you are feeling stressed or anxious, you tend to take shallow, rapid breaths.
But when you are in a state of relaxation, your breathing is naturally slower and more rhythmic.
That’s why when you feel overwhelmed it’s a good idea to give yourself a few moments to deepen and slow down your breath.
You want to deliberately extend the length of your outbreath.
This will encourage your body to stop producing stress hormones and trigger the body’s natural relaxation response instead.
You can read more about this technique in my earlier blog Conquer Stress and Anxiety with this Deceptively Simple Breathing Exercise .
2. Change overwhelm-inducing thoughts
Despite popular belief, overwhelm is rarely caused by external events.
As with most things in life, it is seldom what is happening that overwhelms us but how we interpret it mentally and emotionally.
Thoughts of being out of control, unpredictability and uncertainty are usually at the heart of feelings of overwhelm.
It’s the unrealistic or unreasonable thoughts that we have that cause us to feel stressed.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what we’re telling ourselves, and learn to create healthier, more helpful thoughts.
For example, if you have a long list of actions on your to-do list for the day and you find yourself thinking, ’Oh my goodness … I’m never going to get all this done,’ you are more likely to experience distress and anxiety because such thoughts stop you from problem solving and taking action.
If instead you engage in more constructive thoughts such as:
_ ’It seems overwhelming to me right now, but if I break it down into smaller parts, it may be more doable.’
’I may not get it all done today, but I’m going to do my best.’
’I know I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, but if I take a break, I may feel differently about this when I return.’_
your feelings will start to shift towards a more empowered state, which will allow you take the next step.
If you are prone to negative thinking then question your thoughts.
They’re not real.
Just as you created the negative thought, you have the power to create a positive one.
A powerful way to dispute dysfunctional thinking is to notice when you begin to feel anxious.
Then identify the thought that caused that physiological reaction and ask yourself, ’In what ways might this thought be inaccurate, unreasonable or unhelpful?’
Reflect on how you can think about the situation more realistically, and see if you can generate alternative thoughts that will lead to more positive emotions and behaviour.
Then practice thinking those thoughts for a few moments.
The fact is that your mind can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.
It will simply accept whatever you are thinking.
Therefore, your mind will accept an alternative positive thought just as readily as it latched onto the negative one.
One of my favourite mantras when I’m feeling overwhelmed is, ’I’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do. At the end of the day, nothing really matters’.
I simply lie to myself!
And it works every time because I instantly begin to calm down.
3. Shift your energy
If you struggle to control your thoughts when you’re feeling overwhelmed, try doing something that changes your immediate environment or creates some physical movement instead.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious, go for a quick run or do ten minutes of yoga.
If you’re feeling stressed and teary, call a friend and have a laugh.
If you feel yourself sinking into a negative place within yourself, put on some motivational music that lifts your mood. Or do some free-form dancing.
Do something that changes your energy, and you’ll find you can keep those overwhelmed feelings at bay.
For 21 easy and natural ways to lift your mood check out my ebook Feel Good Now .
4. Change your multitasking mindset
I used to think multitasking was a skill, and I would often boast (mostly to my husband!) that I was a brilliant multi tasker.
I could do lots of things at the same time and I thought it made me highly efficient.
Well, I was wrong.
Multitasking is in fact a myth.
Studies have shown that no one can do multiple things at the same time.
If you think you’re cooking dinner, listening to a podcast, and helping your child with her homework, and doing each activity well, you are mistaken.
In actual fact, your brain is continually switching from one task to the other and then back again.
This is exhausting!
Not only does it deplete your mental energy, it’s also likely to increase your stress levels.
It is far better to focus on one task at a time and give it your full attention.
You are more likely to get the job done quicker and to a higher standard than when you try to do several things at once.
5. Set realistic goals
It’s great to aim high, but if you always aim too high when setting your to-do list for the day and inevitably fall short of completing it, you’re repeatedly left feeling a) like a failure and b) overwhelmed because you’ve given yourself too much to do.
There are only 24 hours in a day.
Roughly estimate how long tasks will take and set ambitious — but realistic — goals.
You can do anything, but not everything, and certainly not everything all at once.
Also, allow yourself some flexibility so that you can adjust your expectations if some things take longer than you anticipated.
6. Action a few quick and easy items first
When you have a lot to do, traditional management wisdom suggests prioritising the most important things and getting those done first.
But if you are prone to overwhelm it can help if you start by quickly getting a few of the simplest tasks out of the way first.
Managing overwhelm really means managing your mind, so if you are able to shorten your ‘terrifying’ to-do list you will feel better because it will feel like you’re making good progress.
This will not only keep the anxiety at bay but also incentivise you to continue, as you get into the flow of taking productive action.
7. Cull or postpone anything that doesn’t really need doing
I’m not sure how and why so many of us have acquired the belief that everything on our task list has to be done right now.
It’s very unhelpful, especially when it comes to overwhelm.
If you take a really honest look at what you have to do, it’s highly likely you will find things that can be postponed until another day with no consequences whatsoever.
For example, if you don’t respond to a friend’s email straightaway or change the bedsheets for another day, it’s hardly going to spell disaster.
Go through each item on your list and ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t get it done today.
Often the answer is ‘nothing’.
You should be able to cross out a good chunk of your to-do list by answering this question, or at least reduce the sense of urgency and pressure.
8. Ask for help
I have a strong independent streak in my personality, so it took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t actually have to do everything by myself all the time.
I could ask for help. I could delegate.
I could lean on people.
If the people in your life love, care for and/or respect you, chances are they will want to help you out.
As long as you ask for help in a clear and considerate way, you will be surprised by how far family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and even acquaintances will be willing to step in and give you a hand.
Asking for help every now and again does not mean you are incapable. It simply means you need more resources to deal with your load.
If you ask politely and give people the option of saying ‘no’ in the event they can’t or don’t want to help, then there is no need to feel guilty about asking.
They are making their own decision, and it is not a reflection on you.
In fact, what you are doing is creating a warmer, more open-hearted connection with those around you by allowing them to share in your life.
9. Get a sense of perspective
It’s so easy to get completely stressed out about a deadline at work, an unfinished personal project, the laundry pile, or the fact that you might have to grab a takeaway instead of cooking.
But, remember, life is long and beautiful, and this is just one busy period … one busy day … and like every other day it will pass.
I’m presuming you have a roof over your head, access to food and water, clothes on your back, a few friends to lean on, a family member or two who love you, a favourite book, holiday plans and future dreams. If you don’t get through your entire to-do list, it will be okay.
Life will continue.
You will get another chance to start over.
Focus on the one thing you have to do right now, and, remind yourself of what really matters.
Most of the pressure we put ourselves under is self-inflicted and needless.
I find that being overwhelmed every now and again does me good, because it forces me to rethink my priorities and increase my level of self-care.
At these times, I like to reflect on what the author and behavioural scientist Steve Maraboli has said: