We’ve all felt the weight of overwhelm on our shoulders. It’s the feeling that you are being mentally or emotionally buried. Maybe it’s your overflowing to-do list, maybe it’s expectations of perfection, or maybe it’s simply a lack of sleep. Regardless of the source, it’s crucial to have some real strategies so that you can stop feeling overwhelmed and start making progress on your goals.
What Causes Overwhelm?
In order to fix a problem, we’ve got to identify the source. It’s the same as if you discover that a tire on your car is leaking air. You can patch it up to stop the leak, but you must find where the hole is first.
So why does overwhelm happen to us? It’s usually one of these reasons:
- Expectations are too high. It’s either the expectations we put on ourselves or those imposed upon us. We think we can get more done in a day than is physically possible. And we want it all to be done perfectly Or external forces are asking more of us than we can actually do. Often it’s a combination of expectations from different sources.
- We put our health on the back burner. This means our physical, mental, and emotional health. We work so hard and don’t know how or when to stop. We think taking breaks is a waste of time and fail to see that taking breaks actually fuels productivity. We don’t get enough sleep, exercise, or healthy food. We forego personal leisure time so we can “get ahead.”
- Distractions get the best of us. Overwhelm is an overcrowding of your brain space. Too much to do; not enough time to do it. When there is so much competing for your mental attention, your brain goes haywire. The malfunction results in that feeling of overwhelm. Distractions can be in the form of constant interruptions from others, phone notifications, texts, emails, meetings, or checking social media.
- We lack clarity. We don’t have goals set for ourselves. In turn, we don’t know how to choose priorities. We say yes to things that don’t matter to us, and we don’t have the right structure outlining our days.
3 Sure-Fire Strategies for Stopping Overwhelm
1. Make yourself take a break
I say “make yourself” because I know it’s incredibly hard sometimes. You’ll try and reason with yourself. “Just one more hour of barreling through.” You’ll convince yourself that you need to double down to keep getting things done. But I promise you this: When you are overwhelmed, one of three things will happen:
- You will take twice as long to complete your tasks
- You won’t do your best at said tasks
- You will burn yourself out completely.
(What’s worse? You might actually do all three!)
When you are overwhelmed, your body is telling you that it needs rest. In fact, it is screaming at you by this point. Remember, how we talked about the tires on your car leaking air? And how we need to find the source of the leak in order to patch it? Whether you like the metaphor or not, you are like a car in another way. You need fuel in order to move. Refill your tank.
Go for a walk. Get outside and breathe. Stretch. Exercise is great for stress reduction and sending oxygen to your brain to improve clarity and focus. Rejuvenating both your mind and body at the same time is a win/win.
Taking breaks during the day is important, but it’s also about making some time for yourself in the evening or on the weekend. If you usually bring your work home and sit in bed at night with a laptop (or some variation of that), do something else instead. Read a book for fun, engage in a hobby you enjoy, watch a movie with your partner, or take a warm bath and just relax.
When you recharge your body’s batteries and give your brain permission to rest, you can come back to your work or your life’s demands refreshed — with a clear perspective and renewed energy.
2. Organize your brain
Overwhelm is like being stuck in a traffic jam. In optimal circumstances, traffic is flowing, cars are moving, and everyone is following the rules of the road. In a state of overwhelm, everyone is honking their horns angrily, you’re wedged between cars on every side, and no one is going anywhere. It’s frustrating, and you don’t know how to get out of it.
Just like the traffic jam, your brain needs some organization in order to get flowing again. The first step is to do what some people have called a brain dump. Essentially, it means listing out all the contents of your brain on paper (or on the computer). Write down what’s taking up space in your brain in order to free up that valuable real estate in your mind.
List out all of your to-do’s, all the projects you are doing or need to be doing, and even all the emotions you are experiencing. In this dump phase, you may find it helpful to journal or even have a therapeutic conversation with someone to just let it all out.
Once you’ve cleared the space in your mind, you can start to categorize everything. Perhaps you have categories like: Work, home maintenance, kids. Or more specific categories like: Birthday party, moving to a new house, job search. Choose things that make sense for you.
When you see everything listed out, you can decide what isn’t relevant. What can you let go of or delegate to someone else? What can you reschedule to a later date? Think about what your bigger goals for life and work are, and align your priorities with those. Now you add reminders to your calendar and plan out realistically how to get your priorities accomplished.
Getting everything out of your brain and laid out clearly where you can see it is a great way to minimize the guesswork and start taking real actions that will make overwhelm disappear.
3. Change your mindset
Overwhelm puts you in a self-centered, victim mindset. You are buried, drowning, helpless. To get out of the paralyzed mindset, we have to take ownership and control. We need to operate from a place of empowerment, not reactivity. This can be done in a few different ways.
This first is by creating a positive personal affirmation for yourself. An affirmation is simply a sentence you can say aloud or in your mind that gives you confidence and assurance, and helps you overcome negative feelings.
Here are some examples:
“I am in control of my life and my emotions.”
“I will step out of the feeling of overwhelm and into confidence that I can overcome it.”
“I am capable, and I am strong.”
Don’t overthink it. Use one of these, or create your own sentence. What would you say to your best friend or your child if they asked you how to deal with their own overwhelm? This is what you will say to yourself when the feelings of overwhelm get the best of you. In fact, I’d recommend you start every day with reciting your personal affirmation to stop overwhelm before it starts.
Another option is to embrace the mindset of gratitude. Scientific studies show that gratitude can actually improve your physical and psychological health. It can reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost your self esteem.
Here are some options for incorporating gratitude:
- Start a journal where you can spend five minutes a day noting what you are grateful for.
- Make it a part of your family dinner conversation, each person sharing gratitude for one thing from the day.
- Share with your partner one thing you’re grateful for each night before bed.
One final way to shift your mindset is to start a mindfulness practice. You can do a simple practice in the time it takes for your coffee to brew. Mindfulness reduces anxiety and stress, increases your mental clarity, and helps you get more in touch with your sense of self.
Mindfulness means being in the present moment. It’s about paying attention to the details (not trying to change them), and acknowledging emotions without judgment. Mindfulness can actually build new connections in your brain that can shift how you respond to experiences. It allows you to deal with emotions like overwhelm in a healthier way.
Set aside five minutes at the same time every day — maybe first thing in the morning or before bed in the evening, whatever works for you. Sit comfortably or lie down. Close your eyes and put your attention towards your breath, breathing in and out deeply. Simply be aware of how you’re feeling, what sensations are happening in your body, and what’s going on around you (sounds, smells, temperatures). Keep yourself in the present moment. If your mind starts thinking about your to-do list, simply acknowledge it and come back to the moment. There is no right or wrong; it’s simply about paying attention. This is a simple way to start a mindfulness practice, and there are countless practices (guided and unguided) that can be found in an online search.
Get back to what really matters
These three techniques are at your disposal whenever you need them. Try incorporating all three for a major shift in your outlook, productivity, and possibility! Take back control, and stop feeling overwhelmed so that you can start making progress on your true goals.