Feeling Overwhelmed? Strategies To Cope And Survive
Updated October 08, 2018
Reviewer Debra Halseth, LCSW
Despite early 20th Century predictions, technology has made life more complicated and hectic, rather than less so. Sure, the invention of the washing machine means that nobody has to churn and squeegee their filthy shirts for three hours a day. But the invention of the Internet and the availability of screened devices allow you to be more connected than ever.
More connection means more demands on your time. Instead of reading a book at night, you steel yourself as you read a stressful email message from your boss. That's right-your boss's influence extends all the way to your bedroom! But if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath! There are practical, actionable ways to stop feeling overwhelmed with life.
- Define Overwhelmed
Congratulations! You have already accomplished half the battle; you are reading this article because you identified that you are feeling "overwhelmed." Taking the time to name your emotions is difficult, but rewarding because once you name them, you can address them directly.
But what exactly is the meaning of overwhelmed? The definition of overwhelmed is to have too much to do. Inundated and submerged are synonyms of overwhelmed. So if you feel like you are on a sinking ship, you are overwhelmed.
If you meditate on the word overwhelmed long enough, it might begin to seem weird. There's overwhelmed and underwhelmed, but what is plain old whelmed? In the mid-15 Century, English people used the word whelm to refer to submerging completely-in reference to boats that were toppled by big waves. But if whelm means submerged completely, why do we need overwhelmed? Good question! The meanings of overwhelm and whelm are almost identical.
- Understand Why You Feel Overwhelmed
You might think that you feel overwhelmed because you have too much on your to-do list. But overwhelmedis a state of mind-not a condition! You can feel overwhelmed when there's not much to do, and you can feel bored when there is too much to do. If your mind is racing, chances are you feel overwhelmed.
But why would your mind race in the first place? Think about the experience of the human mind throughout history. Prior to the industrial revolution, much time was spent laboring to manage most tasks that had to be accomplished in a day. From household tasks and chores, transportation, and work in many settings, technology has transformed our lives giving us more free time but also many more options and activities that beg for our attention. In short, the human brain is not accustomed to the infinite number of things to do. It races from one exciting or troubling possibility to another, and you begin to feel overwhelmed.
- Define Your Priorities
Understanding that your time and energy are not limitless means that you must choose how to use your time and energy given the limitless possibilities. When you feel like you have too much to do, start by identifying what matters most. Many people who consciously think about it chose to prioritize family and health. The problem is that too many people don't consciously prioritize tasks, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and frustration.
- Manage your Energy (Sleep)
Some people try to accomplish one last thing by sacrificing an hour of sleep, but if you feel overwhelmed, that is the last thing you should do. Even losing one hour of sleep decreases cognitive performance significantly. When you get enough sleep, you may do less, but you will accomplish more. That is, whatever you are able to do will be much higher quality. When you are well rested, you are more effective and efficient.
- Surround Yourself with Energy Builders
If you are overwhelmed at work, be sure to surround yourself with Positive Patties instead of Negative Nancies. People who focus on negativity are energy suckers, but if you are overwhelmed, you need energy builders. Energy builders focus on the delicious pizza rather than the spilled pop, the upcoming holiday rather than the weekend work day, and the boss's stylish tie rather than his critical demeanor.
When you hang out with energy builders, their infectious optimism will envelop you, and you will become an energy builder. When you feel optimistic you are more likely to see the opportunities instead of the obstacles.
- Maintain Your Hobbies and Develop New Ones
Don't get caught in the trap of moving from one demand to another without stopping for a breath. If you want to live a complete life, keep your hobbies and develop new ones. Sure, you may not get paid for them, but you will approach work with a fresh perspective-and maybe even get a promotion because of it! Making time for activities that are just for fun and relaxation is a part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
- Appreciate Your Unconditional Worth
If you feel overwhelmed, chances are you haven't taken the time to acknowledge your intrinsic value. That is, you have worth regardless of what you do. If you are performance-oriented, you believe that your worth is tied to how much you accomplish and how well you accomplish it. This unhealthy perspective will leave you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Whether you become overwhelmed by performance frustrations or other issues that cause you to feel negatively about yourself, an online counselor can help you understand and work to improve your self-worth.
- Take Strides to Overcome the Feeling of Stress Quickly
When you are overwhelmed, your stress response is likely activated and stress hormones are coursing through your veins. Short-term (acute) stress actually boosts your immune system and overall wellbeing. But long-term (chronic) stress leads to chronic inflammation, and eventually, disease. For this reason, it is important that you face stress head-on so that you manage your stress effectively.
- Engage your Senses
You are not a robot. You have the ability to fully integrate and appreciate your five senses. The moment you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a step back, ground yourself in your environment, and see what your senses have to say. Not only does using your senses to ground yourself in your environment combat the feeling of being overwhelmed, but it also reduces pain and inflammation. The practice of mindfulness is a helpful strategy for grounding yourself in the present moment.
- Make a to-do list
Maybe you are overwhelmed because your mind is bogged down by the sheer act of trying to remember everything. When you write down what you need to do, you release this mental burden. As an added bonus, you will feel accomplished as you cross off tasks one-by-one upon completion.
- Cultivate Gratitude
If you think you have too much to do, appreciate the fact that your life feels full. Feeling overwhelmed can be an indication of blessings in your life like a family and a job. Take time each day to write down your blessings. In the future, you can review this gratitude journal to fully appreciate the positive aspects of your life.
A cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind. There's a logical reason why some people clean when they're overwhelmed; they are clearing their minds as well as their surroundings. If you take a few minutes to clean, you will be more productive when you resume work.
- Delegate Tasks
As humans, we don't want to waive the white flag of surrender. We don't want to delegate tasks to others for fear that they won't do them correctly. But when you feel overwhelmed, chances are it is time to release your tight grip on life and delegate tasks to family, friends, and coworkers. Collaboration can be rewarding!
- Learn to Say No
If you have too much to do, learn to say no. Saying no is not mean; it is simply an acknowledgment that you have limited time and energy. Focus on tasks and projects that are uniquely designed for your capabilities. Don't waste time on things that are outside of your areas of expertise. Unless, of course, you are cultivating a new skill or hobby-then it is perfectly okay to try new things! But when you want to get the most done in the least amount of time, say no to things that others could do better.
- Stop Multi-tasking
Turns out that the brain cannot really multi-task. That's right-we have all fooled ourselves. When you talk on the phone and drive, you are either primarily driving the car or primarily talking on the phone (scary!). The quality of your work will greatly decrease if you try to do two things at once. Don't divide your focus. You will be much more efficient and effective if you focus on one task at a time.
- Be Mindful
If your mind is racing, learn to slow it down through a mindfulness practice. Instead of fretting about the future or ruminating about the past, spend time being fully present in the moment. The art of mindfulness is a powerful tool for focusing on the most important moment and that is the present moment.
- Is it really necessary?
Evaluate whether a task is really necessary. Often we self-impose deadlines and tasks when others don't have these expectations of us. Nobody has ordered you onto that exhausting hamster wheel! Get off as soon as you can!
- Take a Step Back
If you feel overwhelmed, it can help to take a step back and objectively examine the situation. But objectivity may not be possible when you are over-stressed or over-tired. After a quick nap or meditation, your life will seem less hazy and doomed.
- Develop a Strong Support System
Last, but certainly not least, find people whom you can turn to through life's ups and downs. Close friends will help you when you are overwhelmed, and vice versa. Having a strong support system leads to better mental and physical health.
Remember that feeling overwhelmed is a state of mind, not a real condition. You can choose to combat the feeling with targeted strategies like the ones above. An online counselor can help you identify specific causes behind why you feel overwhelmed, and help you address them, one-by-one. With a little effort and the help of a professional counselor, you can regain a sense of calm control over your life.