Feeling overwhelmed by life? Hmm, you are not alone. It is something I’ve struggled with and what we ALL struggle with at some point in time…and for various reasons. It is a symptom of our modern society, with its fast-paced corporate world, rapid turn around of ideas, an influx of information and wanting it all. Here’s what I’ve learned about feeling overwhelmed with life and how to address it.
What Does Overwhelmed Mean?
Collins English Dictionary gives this meaning: “If you are overwhelmed by a feeling or event, it affects you very strongly, and you do not know how to deal with it.”1
Opposite to Overwhelmed?
I once regarded myself as ‘fireproof’. I was a high achiever! I knew how to deal with feelings and events. YEP! I was like – bring it on! There was no such thing as feeling overwhelmed at work, or at home…
I remember feeling not a tad overwhelmed in planning my wedding. And, feeling wholly excited, rather than overwhelmed, about the new beginnings when moving to a new city or having to buy and sell real estate or any significant life-changing purchase for that matter. Though admittedly, I felt stressed, I don’t recall feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
Instead of reducing stress, I purposefully sought out stressful situations, like moving cities, changing careers, and undertaking higher education, including a Masters and Ph.D. in the life sciences.
In some ways it was like a drug — the challenge and pleasure or ‘high’ associated with each achievement — and it made me thirst for more. Maybe it was me seeking approval among my peers or in society perhaps. In any case, such a stress response I suspect was driven by my ego.
Being Emotionally Overwhelmed
Then, there were the major life events — the deaths of my special and favorite people, including my mum and my dad and the passing of my fur friends — just some of the losses.
Nevertheless, I dealt with these (or so I thought), just like I dealt with the relationship breakups that made me feel frazzled but not necessarily thinking about the overwhelming feeling. The worst thing that can happen with loss is to get stuck in denial.
Frazzled I was, as a single mum (and an orphaned one at that) juggling parenthood, the household, a job and study at the same time. Let’s face it, being a parent can be stressful when you’re trying to provide a sustainable future and, especially doing it on your own, and maneuvering the singles field.
Threshold of Easily Overwhelmed
Then, there was my profession, where I juggled attaining higher education and taking on new roles during times of poorly managed organizational restructures that resulted in erratic changes and immense uncertainty in the workplace. This can be a common thing.
Yep, you guessed it. All of the above combined with life struggles took its toll.
No one is exempt. Stress affects our nervous system. You don’t have to be a highly sensitive person to be easily overwhelmed at times. In my opinion, we all have a threshold.
I know of a case of a grown man – a successful professional – crying at the thought of having to take out the rubbish.
For me, I sometimes felt like staying in bed, pulling up the covers and wishing the world would go away. That’s feeling overwhelmed.
Other times, I couldn’t sleep, with my mind racing over everything I had to do and leaving me incapable of dealing proficiently with the barrage of requests that awaited me the next day. That’s feeling overwhelmed.
When There’s Too Much To Do
I’ve never enjoyed working under pressure. Though I’ll produce satisfactory output by the given deadline, it’s not where I feel my best. I much prefer to plan and complete things with time to spare. Oh, and I’m probably a bit of a perfectionist, so I like time to review and redo. Tight deadlines add stress and with everything else going on, it can lead to feeling overwhelmed.
Unlike me, my friend produces brilliant work under pressure. She utterly amazes me in this respect.
But, even she buckles, feeling overwhelmed, with an accumulation of life stresses. At these times, inertia sets in, she accomplishes nothing and finds herself on a downward spiral of feeling overwhelmed and doubting herself. Many of us suffer from this. I consider this analogous to a ‘well’ that has reached and surpassed its threshold level of ‘take’.
Life events take from this well (of resilience), depleting it gradually or even suddenly, depending on how events take place and accumulate.
Effects of Overwhelming Stress
Continuing from one stressful situation to the next without recharging the ‘well’ inside you eventually leads to depletion nearing the threshold limit. At this point, just a single or minor event can be enough to breach the limit.
Remember I mentioned the case of a grown man crying at the thought of having to take out the rubbish.
Everyone has a threshold limit and even the most resilient can be affected.
So, life events take from the well and without recharge or closure (which may never be complete), the well becomes depleted. Your own and others’ perspectives, your personas, and the ego can’t fill the well and, possibly they add to the depletion of the well.
It’s time to develop new ideas about the resources to draw on.
The best resource, I’ll say here, is your Self. Take notice of your intention and intuition and use these to guide you. You can do it and you’ll discover what you need to know to do it. This means trusting in your intuition, being in the flow and accepting that change happens.
When I Feel Overwhelmed
I have come to realize two forces combined cause me to feel overwhelmed and potentially on the brink of burn out.
- Looming deadlines (either self-imposed or externally controlled), coinciding with
- Multiple simultaneous demands wanting pieces of me
Oh. wait! I’m a woman. For women, there’s a third: timing. Things can get a lot worse at certain times or stages in our lives (darn hormones).
Thus, it depends on what else is happening – how many balls are in the air, energy levels, hormones, diet, sleep patterns or other internal or external influences.
So, here’s what I found works.
Where to Start When Feeling Overwhelmed
For starters, it works to make a daily habit of clearing your head of worrying thoughts. Among other ways, journaling and meditation works wonders to help with this.
This isn’t always easy. So one of the first things…is to admit you’re feeling overwhelmed.
The Three R’s To Stop Feeling Overwhelmed All the Time
Once you get familiar with and repeat this whole process a few times, these steps will become automatic and the game plan will just amount to a mental note.
However, I strongly recommend you write the tasks for each project for the simple purpose of giving you a sense of reward and satisfaction later rather than continue with an “I am overwhelmed” feeling. The reward section covers this.
The three R’s to stop being easily overwhelmed all the time are reinforce, recharge, and reward. These are the golden rules that will help you to stop feeling so overwhelmed when symptoms strike.
Visualization is a technique used by athletes and other professionals to reinforce their confidence and help them win goals. Here’s a technique for this.
- Imagine you have already achieved your objective (in your mind’s eye). If you worded your objective as if you have already achieved it, repeat those words in your head. Reinforce this by imagining the smells, sounds, tastes, sights, and touch associated with the objective.
- Imagine completing your task(s) for that day. To advance this, include a special room in your visualization where you have assistants that might include a mentor, coach or another specialist, and documentation that helps you with your tasks.
- Note the personal qualities you will develop in achieving you objectives.
How? Try getting outside in nature, having a change of scenery or interacting with others — all can help tremendously.
Make sure you are eating healthily. Especially look after that gut-mind connection by eating gut healing foods (see my article on restoring gut health).
Going and relaxing can lift the burden from your mind to ‘clear your head’.
If you are an introvert, using the time for introspection is important for recharge. If you are an extrovert, then you’ll want to mingle socially to recharge. You might be amazed at how more productive you will be on your return after that time away.
In this, you acknowledge completing the chunks with a reward/celebration.
After completing the tasks along the way, tick them off and make time to CELEBRATE THE WINS! Rewarding yourself is energizing and helps with future motivation.
Being able to tick off each task on completion and reward yourself is satisfying and this helps in reducing stress. You’ll feel better, as the levels of natural wellbeing chemicals in your body are boosted by giving yourself treats as rewards.
You might feel stressed with the demands leading up to the Christmas break, with or without having to complete a special project or event at the same time. It’s not just about having lots of things to do and not feeling in control, but also stressing about whether that you’ll get them done satisfactorily (especially if you are a perfectionist).
My best advice for ridding your head of stubborn worrying thoughts… is to start with a brain dump. Read on for the next steps.
What to do when you feel overwhelmed
I am overwhelmed. What do I do? Here’s my 3-step plan on how to deal with being overwhelmed.
1. Dump Everything in Your Head
The first step in how to not feel overwhelmed is to do a brain dump!
Ask yourself why do I feel overwhelmed? When you have all these things running around in your head, you suffer inertia or a feeling of no control over your life, or worse, overwhelming anxiety.
Simply ‘dump’ everything that’s on your mind. This means everything that wants a piece of you onto a piece of paper or a file on your device.
Make It Simple
There’s no need for order or making sense of your thoughts right now. Let it go! There is no need for sorting or prioritizing, just dump it! — write whatever thoughts come into your head, let it flow.
This is similar to Marie Kondos’ tidying-up approach to spark joy (see here). To reduce chaos in the home she advises to first dump everything from your cupboard onto your bed or bench for later sorting and organizing.
You might find this emotional. If you do, just go with it. Doing this declutters the mind, lifts the load and helps overcome feeling overwhelmed. For me, it’s a crucial step.
2. Chunk and Spotlight The Important Bits
This is number two of what to do when feeling overwhelmed.
First, break that brain dump into achievable chunks. These chunks need to be a size that you can achieve! This is what I call ‘chunking’.
This is your first goal in this step.
Goals help you channel your energy into action – Les Brown
An Example of Chunking
Imagine you have a report to complete that has you feeling overwhelmed. Chunking it would mean you break it down into achievable bits, like the various tasks. These might be identifying the aim and the audience, researching the topic, deciding on the structure and format, organizing input from others, selecting reviewers and sending drafts for comment, revising and editing, and then final submission.
The chunks can be as high or as small in level as you wish. This might depend on your personality, whether you are a big-picture person or a detail-orientated one.
A lot of people cope with this by using separate lists. You know … the guest list, the gift list, the grocery list, the drinks list, the hire-equipment list, etc. etc.
I find writing lists down helps heaps. But… only after identifying the objective.
Once you have your brain dump and ‘chunks’, here’s the next step in what to do when you are overwhelmed…
Spotlight the Important Bits!
Identify the most important ones. Then, highlight the ones that can be delegated or outsourced to someone else. For this, you need to ask yourself what is your final objective(s)? When do you need this? Why it is important to you? Who has the best skills for the task? What are the savings in time versus money in outsourcing or delegating the task or not?
If you are finding this all too much for you, have a break and come back to it. Sleep on it even. You’ll find it much easier on return.
The One Thing
Part of this is recognizing the one task that makes others redundant. The ONE Thing (see here) explains how to do this well if you need help. This means acting on the one thing that will mean others will be taken care of, and thus reduce your load. For example, one short phone call might counteract having to reply to 10 emails while also negating the onslaught of future ones. Think of the old saying: kill two birds with one stone.
Now, prioritize the chunks starting with 1 as the most important.
In summary, your goals so far have been to…
- List the items or tasks to do
- Prioritize them in order starting with ‘1’ as the most important
- ‘Chunk’ the items together where they fit
- Find the ‘one thing’ that can make others redundant
- Identify tasks to delegate or outsource
The list you have now is the base for the next step.
3. Take Control With A game plan!
The next step in what to do when feeling overwhelmed is a game plan, which can be as simple as a dot-point list of tasks designed with a schedule and final objective. Make sure to schedule the tasks within honest timeframes and allow some slack for downtime or unforeseen requests. If there is no definite end-date, set one that is reasonable.
You’ve already listed the final objectives and their chunks or tasks one by one, you might refine these now or do so later.
- Have the final objective highlighted and why you want it (the benefits to you or others).
- Make sure each task (chunk) is written as if you have already achieved it (like: “I have…” or “I am…”) in specific terms
- Cancel out the redundant ones
- Have start and end dates/times
- Note who is doing any delegated tasks
Sometimes it helps to work backward from the end date and the completion to identify the chunks and their priority. What do you need to buy and by when? (e.g. when do you need to order a ham or turkey by?) Who do you need to invite? What do you need to make?
But…most important — when you write this game plan, schedule in downtime (factor in things to you that are fun, enjoyable satisfying, and rejuvenating). Sounds counterintuitive but it’s so valuable.
Tools to Help
Looking for tools that help on how to not be overwhelmed? There are plenty of time management, task sharing, and scheduling apps online, and journals, diaries, and planners as hard copies that will help.
For writing your goals and lists, choose a journal, diary or planner that resonates with you. I tend towards using one for each segment of my life. In fact, I suggest you keep one special journal, diary or planner for the purpose of this activity.
Have you tried Trello?
Trello is an online organizer, calendar, and team collaborator. I use this as well. It’s so flexible and easy to use and a good tool to help avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Zack Arnold, TV Editor and productivity speaker, created an entire Lynda.com course about using Trello in his field, after he found it helped him when he was feeling overwhelmed and depressed.
Zack had suffered burnout and you might recall I mentioned a person brought to tears with having to take out the rubbish. Well, that was Zack.
I was completely burned out and depressed. At one point, the mere thought of having to take the trash out brought me to tears. I decided I was going to stop treating myself like a Ford Pinto and start treating myself like a Ferrari.Zack Arnold
Zack’s Course List included: Fitness In Post | Optimize Yourself | Trello For Post-Production
- A calendar (online or hardcopy) as a simple way of planning and scheduling.
- Reminder apps (iTunes or Google Play)
- To-do apps (iTunes or Google Play)
Self Care and Putting It Into Perspective
How big is your problem? Look at it from the whole of Earth perspective. Look up at the stars. Observe the full moon rising and the sun setting. Does the problem become minuscule in proportion?
What’s the worse that can happen?
Get outside, get some sunshine and take in the fresh air to lessen stress. Take a break from your phone, computer, and tablet and get in touch with the real world.
Beware of burn out or even brownout.
Words of Wisdom
Every now and then go away.
Have a little relaxation.
For when you come back
To your work
Your judgment will be surer;
Since to remain constantly at work
Will cause you to lose power of judgment...
Go some distance way
Because the work appears smaller
And more of it
Can be taken in at a glance,
And a lack of harmony
Is more readily seen.
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
Lastly, but not least, communicate.
- Listen to your inner Self
- Get outdoors for fresh air to clear your head and let the universe communicate
- Talk about it… verbalize it, shout it to the ocean, the trees, the birds
- Enlist the help of family, friends or team members, seek input from others. Like ants and bees in nature, humans can achieve greatness through teamwork.
- Tell someone (who you’re comfortable with) about your concerns. From my experience, the other person may not have the answers, but the mere fact I verbalize it often frees my mind allowing ideas to flow into my head. And, the load always seems lighter to carry.
- Get a mentor and coach. If you can afford it and desire it, enlist professional services. If not, and no one presents on the physical plane – access your best and free resource – incorporate a mentor and coach in workshops of the mind during visualization meditation (more about this in future posts).
Feeling overwhelmed can happen anytime.
For example, with running a business, managing staff, planning a wedding, renovating or building a house, studying for exams or with being a working parent or just living. No one is immune.
I hope this has given some ideas on what to do when overwhelmed.