Dealing With Overwhelm

Extended (or multiple) periods of uncertainty and stress can be overwhelming. The feeling of overwhelm can seem like an immersion – the situation consumes the mind and sometimes it seems as if there is an inability to focus on anything else, or to know how to get started in moving forward. Overwhelm can feel like an overpowering and all-encompassing feeling, as if it is surrounding you and making you incapable of thinking about anything else. It can be coupled with feelings of anger, fear, anxiety or guilt, and can be difficult to really articulate. When you feel overwhelmed, it can cause cortisol in your body to spike, resulting in an increase of anxiety. Normal thought processes can turn to try and focus on the source of the feeling, resulting in ruminating, irritability and worry. Feelings of helplessness may also arise.

But sometimes life is very uncomfortable and overwhelming isn’t it? When situations arise that are complex and new and difficult to deal with, it often feels like we don’t have the skills or ability to deal with it. And sometimes situations can take a very long time to work themselves out (weeks, months, years even), so you have to stay in an in-between place for quite a while. When this occurs, sometimes some of the best things that you can do is work to make yourself comfortable and really step back to think about what is happening so that you can process this uncomfortable emotion. The first part of this is acknowledging your feeling of overwhelm.

Acknowledging your feeling of overwhelm helps to put a finger on it, as well as can point you to the thoughts that are causing this feeling. Being deliberate to think through and process these thoughts can be an uncomfortable experience. This is okay. Let thoughts be there, and realize that they don’t represent the totality of your life and situation, but only a portion of it. It can be helpful to write down some of your thoughts that are causing you to feel overwhelmed and identify what could be true, or what could be untrue about those thoughts. Thinking through the totality of your life could also be helpful – including what is working for you, what you appreciate, what in your life is going right, what other areas of life that you may be contributing to or achieving your goals in.

What causes overwhelm?

The first thing that causes the feeling of overwhelm is the thoughts that you are choosing to focus on about your situation. This can represent how you are choosing to view your circumstances, and whether those thoughts are serving you in a way that is productive and helpful for you. Situations that can contribute to negative thinking can often include: a health issue, personal commitments, work obligations, family needs, financial position, economic stresses, world events, community news, etc.

What does overwhelm look like? This feeling looks very different depending on the person, how these feelings affect them, and what thoughts they are choosing to focus on. Taking action (or inaction) when feeling overwhelmed can cause academic difficulties, inability to concentrate, ruminating, inability to decide, feelings of inauthenticity, feeling uncertain, inability to complete tasks, comparisons with other people’s experiences, unresolved issues, inability to balance the needs of others with your own, thoughts of suicide, feelings of severe anxiety, crying a lot, etc.

50 things that you can do when you are feeling overwhelmed:

1.     Be intentional – think about one thing that you can focus on and achieve. For some, this is simply making their bed first thing in the morning.

2.     Connect – choose to be present in the moment versus disconnect and distracting yourself.

3.     Eliminate toxicity where possible – whether this is a product, person or event.

4.     Breathing deeply a few times in a row (or for several minutes) will help to calm you down and oxygenate your brain.

5.     Reduce or eliminate one thing that is not productive or wastes your time.

6.     Release the thought that is burdening you, even for a few minutes, so that you can focus on something else to give your mind and emotions a break.

7.     Embrace curiosity about your situation and think about how other people may view your situation, or what you would say to someone else who was experiencing what you are.

8.     Write a letter to a close friend to explain what is going on for you. Get it all out. If you finish the letter and don’t feel comfortable sending it, then you don’t need to.

9.     Focus on an area where you have willpower and honor that part of your life. It will remind you how and where you are effective and can help fend of feelings of depletion or inadequacy.

10.  Watch a comedy.

11.  Ask yourself what parts of your life are going well.

12.  Try to write a list of 50 things in your life that you love.

13.  Get out some markers, highlighters, paint or crayons and draw one picture per day that summarizes what you are experiencing.

14.  Choose to deny yourself one impulse or urge to demonstrate to yourself that there are areas in your life in which you are in control.

15.  Exercise. It will help get your blood flowing and help clear your mind.

16.  Lose attachment to some of the thoughts that you are thinking by questioning their validity and truthfulness, especially if you are engaging in all-or-nothing thinking.

17.  Ask yourself whether what you are telling yourself about your situation is really true – whether someone else in the same situation would believe the same thing, and how else the situation could be perceived.

18.  Write out 7 things describing how the current situation provides something positive for you.

19.  Learn something new – seek an expert or ask for help.

20.  Determine if there are any ways in which you can simplify your life.

21.  Plan a healthy meal.

22.  Spend time in nature.

23.  Listen to music.

24.  Find an opportunity to connect with others, which will help you avoid feeling isolated.

25.  Determine if there is a way that you can give to people who are in need.

26.  Determine if there are ways to make your space more comfortable, calming and pleasant.

27.  Slow your pace if necessary.

28.  Reduce your obligations where possible.

29.  Focused on what is reasonable for you.

30.  Find productive ways to release stress.

31.  Get a massage.

32.  Think about how you can work smarter, not harder.

33.  Don’t try to do everything on your own.

34.  Observe and think about what your instincts are telling you to do without judgment.

35.  Identify adjustments that you can make to what you are currently doing.

36.  Implement one small improvement per day.

37.  Outline the options that are in front of you.

38.  List the decisions that you need to make.

39.  Write an empowering, positive, and true thought about yourself on a sticky note and put it someplace that you will see.

40.  Look for patterns in when and how your most common stressors occur – are they around a specific person? In a specific location? What time of day?

41.  Create a plan for how you will care for yourself when you encounter a crisis.

42.  Teach yourself how to fight – take a personal defense class, negotiations class, mental toughness class.

43.  Speak with a former member of the military to learn tips about combating overwhelm.

44.  Face 5 things that you are afraid of in one week and then reward yourself with something meaningful.

45.  Practice speaking with authority and persuasively.

46.  Think about what matters to you.

47.  Think about your core values, and how they might influence how you choose to show up in a situation.

48.  Think through any advice that your younger self might provide to you.

49.  Think about what advice a wiser, older, more experienced version of yourself would say.

50.  How would you advice a friend in this situation? How would you encourage them? Say those things to yourself.


Overwhelmed and Over It by Christine Arylo

Becoming Bulletproof by Evy Poumpouras

The Age of Overwhelm by Dernoot Lipsky

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