How to deal with overwhelm


When people talk of being overwhelmed, they describe a racing mind, a sense of always being on the edge of tears, and a panicked sensation in their chest, head, or stomach.

Overwhelm is brought on by too many moving parts, too many important life events out of one’s control, and a conviction that nothing else can give. It happens when we believe we have to operate at top level in all areas, all the time. even if we feel like we might fall apart. In response to stress, we become even tougher and more exacting on ourselves. Instead of looking for a way to ease the tension and give ourselves a break, we count the ways we’re failing and berate ourselves for feeling like we’re falling apart.

Here’s what to try instead.

Slow down

Many of us have an internal task manager that responds to outside pressure by increasing our inner pressure to match. This manager will not allow a single ball to be dropped and applies intense performance expectations to everything. This is like expecting to record your personal record marathon time while battling a violent stomach flu.

It might be possible, but you will be a real mess.

I use the stomach flu specifically because so many people have trouble admitting that they are sick unless they are actually throwing up! Only then can they cancel plans, go to bed early, get extra fluids, and let other people help them. Overwhelm is stomach flu for your life.

For the next week or more, treat yourself like you have the emotional flu. Take as much off your plate as you can, get extra rest, allow other people to help you. How to decide what to let go and what to prioritize?

Do a brain dump

This may seem too simplistic or concrete when you are really struggling with overwhelm, but stick with me. Productivity expert David Allen introduced the concept of a “brain dump” to help people become organized and efficient. It achieves those things, but the psychological benefits are even better.

First, on a blank piece of paper, write down every single thing you need to do. Get it all on the page. This is useful because normally we keep a running task list in our head. Our brain will helpfully remind us of what to do by repeating the list on a loop and sending random “to do’s” into your consciousness at inopportune times. Of course this makes the list feel even longer than it actually is. Get it on the page where you can work with it. This way your brain can do what it does best – problem solve.

After writing down every single thing you can think of, from reorganizing the kitchen cabinets to making an appointment with a specialist, go through and cross off as much as possible. Anything you don’t absolutely have to do right now, or are feeling indifferent to, cross off. For everything else, if you can do it under 5 minutes, by sending an email or mailing a check, do it right now and cross it off the list.

Look at what you have left, make sure each item absolutely earns its right to stay on the list, and delegate what you can. If someone offered to pick your kids up from school a few days a week, take them up on it. Better to have too much help and scale back later than feel like you are drowning.

With the remaining tasks ask yourself, “Is there any way to make this easier?” and “Is this the next indicated step, or am I jumping too far ahead?” Once those questions are answered and addressed, plug each item into your calendar. Now every task has a home and your brain can relax, knowing that you are going to do what you need to by the time it needs to be done.

Get connected

Given how reluctant we sometimes are to ask for support, you’d think there was a prize at the end of our lives for having gone it alone. In fact, the prize is being connected to other people along the way. When feeling overwhelmed, many people have the instinct to withdraw and isolate themselves. This does not work.

Getting the support you need can make the difference between coming through hardship battered but wiser, with more empathy for yourself and others, or traumatized and isolated. Talk to loved ones about what is going on and accept the love and kindness they offer. Find a therapist you connect with and gives you space to reflect and organize your thinking.

Finally, if at all possible, connect with people going through something similar at the same time as you. In times of hardship, sometimes the last thing we want is to reach out to people outside our immediate circle, but connecting with fellow travelers on your particular journey is enormously healing.

Reach out to your sister’s friend who is also going through a divorce. Make dinner plans with the other women in your book club who have kids with special needs. Join the cancer support group at your hospital. In person is best, but on-line is also useful. It will help, and relationships formed in hard times tend to be some of the deepest and most meaningful of our lives.

In times of difficulty we are not always going to be able to live in the moment, appreciate each day, or feel gratitude for what is happening. What we can do is comfort our bodies, by slowing down, soothe our racing mind, by writing everything out, and to live with heart, by leaning on our relationships.

Take care.

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