What to Do (and Not Do) When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Overwhelm can be…well, overwhelming. And yet in our fast-paced, busy, over-scheduled society, it’s a common experience. What do you do when they’re aren’t enough hours in the day to handle all of your responsibilities — at least, without giving up necessaries such as sleep, food, and recreation? It’s easy to let the stress of it overtake you. I have come up with several “to dos” as well as some “don’ts” to follow when you’re feeling overwhelmed. These have helped me immensely and I hope they help you, as well.

What to Do

1) Get a relaxing shower. It seems silly, but shower time can feel like time spent in a womb-like environment, and thus be incredibly stress-relieving. The roar of the water blocks out other noise, while the heat loosens tight muscles, and the solitude allows you to get away from having to face other humans for a while. Also, some of my best thinking gets down in the shower, so you might just have an idea come to you while you’re in there. Start re-conceptualizing showers as therapeutic rather than solely related to hygiene purposes.

2) Count to ten. This exercise can take your mind off your worries momentarily, while centering you. It can also help steady your breathing and make you feel more in control.

3) Do breathing exercises. Similar to counting, these can help you concentrate on steadying your breathing, which in turn can help you feel calmer. One I find helpful is to slowly take a deep breath, hold it for three to five seconds, then slowly breathe out.

4) Write down everything you have to do or that is bothering you. This will help organize your thoughts and emotions. It will make your responsibilities feel more manageable and once again put you in control. I am constantly writing lists either with pen and paper or in the “Notes” section of my iPhone. It’s the only way I feel “on top” of things.

5) Tackle the easiest thing on your “to do” list. This always helps me get through my list faster. If you get lots of easy, fast things done first, it motivates you to get the harder, longer tasks done.

6) Play classical music. It’s been proven to increase mood. Many people find playing music while they work to be motivating and make the time pass more quickly.

7) Color. It was fun as a child and is now relaxing as an adult. There are many coloring books marketed towards adults nowadays. I got mine on Amazon for $5. This activity can help you use up some nervous energy and center your attention when you’re feeling out-of-control.

8) Meditate. This is a good practice to incorporate into your daily self-care regimen, but it can be especially important when feeling overwhelmed. With practice (ten minutes a day), you will get better at mastering your mind and letting thoughts come and go without becoming emotionally attached to them. When feeling overwhelmed, meditation will help pause the constant surge of worry, so you’ll be more clear-headed to tackle your day.

9) Move your body. Run. Dance. Do jumping jacks. Stretch out your muscles. Exercise has been proven to release “feel-good” hormones, is good for your heart, and can help release nervous energy and frustration.

10) Vocalize. Sing. Scream. Do scales. It will let out built-up frustration and immediately make you feel calmer, and give you more positive energy, afterwards.

11) Procrastinate. This is only to be done if you have not planned. Tackling a hard day without proper preparation is the fastest way to burnout and failure. If you haven’t come up with a plan, don’t self-sabotage. First make a plan of attack, then get busy.

12) Drink water. Dehydration causes confused thinking. Don’t try to get through a tough day (or week, or month…) while dehydrated.

13) Make yourself comfortable. Are you cold? Warm yourself up. Are you hot? Cool yourself down. Getting a lot of work done from home today? Put on comfy clothes or PJ’s. Have a (healthful) snack. Making yourself comfortable will make your work easier and more pleasant.

14) Straighten up. If you’re like me, it’s hard to think in a cluttered environment. Cluttered space, cluttered mind. A neat area without unnecessary stuff is less over-stimulating and will therefore help you feel calmer and more organized.

15) Get enough sleep. I’ve read that 100 years ago people got 12 hours a night, on average; 50 years ago, people got 10 a night, on average; and I know when growing up in the 90’s, people were getting 7-8 a night (and this is what was recommended). Now “they” are recommending 6-7. The recommended number keeps decreasing, and I have to wonder if this is due to new research being done that shows humans need less and less sleep, or if it’s really about convincing people they need less sleep so they’ll happily continue to work 50-60 hours/week to make somebody else as rich as possible (but oops, I’ve revealed my cynical side…) Moving on…If you didn’t get enough sleep the night before and can spare the time, take a 30-60 minute nap. Just enough to feel refreshed, not enough to feel groggy. Then continue with your day.

16) Share your frustration with someone you trust. Talk it out. Gain an empathetic ear. It can help just to know others are thinking about you and you have their moral support.

17) Hand off responsibility to others. Are there responsibilities you’ve taken on that really shouldn’t belong to you? Have you taken on an unfair share of the load? If it’s a work project, can your co-workers help? If it’s planning a family reunion or wedding, can your relatives help?

18) Schedule time for work, fun, and rest. All three are equally important to having a balanced, satisfying life. Some type of work (whether paid or not) is important for feelings of productivity and worth. Fun is necessary to enjoy the lighter, more personal side of life (humor, time spent with family and friends, expanding your horizons via hobbies and travel). Rest is necessary to allow your body to repair and to have the energy to do work and fun.

19) Let go of things you can’t control. The weather messing up plans or timelines. Others’ attitudes, actions, and decisions. Sickness. Your car randomly deciding to break down or pop a tire when you REALLY need it to just cooperate and take you to your destination. I’m convinced the fastest way to a miserable life is allowing worry and stress to eat you up over situations and circumstances out of your control.

20) Use positive affirmations and internalize them. Find ones you resonate with or make up your own. Look in the mirror, say them to yourself every day as though you’re reading a love note to your significant other, and feel the power and strength they imbue in you. Examples are “I am capable”,”I feel motivated”, “I love myself regardless of my productivity levels”, “It’s okay to take a break when I need one”, “I did a good job today”, “Everything will be okay if I need to take extra time”, and “I cannot control everything, and that is as it should be”.

What Not to Do

1) Panic and try to handle everything at once. This will result in mistakes being made and your mental and physical health being depleted.

2) Beat yourself up for not meeting your expectations. Perhaps your expectations were not realistic. Perhaps there were unforeseen circumstances that came up that pushed your deadline farther away. Be gentle with yourself while challenging yourself to reach your full capabilities.

3) Put your self-care on the back burner. Not getting enough sleep. Working through the night. Missing meals or eating convenient, unhealthful foods. Skipping making your bed in the morning, even though you know that helps put you in a better mood at the start of the day.

4) Fail to reach out to others for moral support or practical help. It’s important to use your support system in times of need, the same way you offer support to those you care about when they are in need.

5) Live in the past/future. Dwelling on past “failures”. Worrying about what the future holds if you don’t meet your deadlines or things don’t go as planned. You cannot give 100% to the task at hand if you’re not present. Be present for your life always.

6) Take on even more stress and duties. If you’re already drowning, you don’t welcome yet more water. It’s important to learn assertiveness and how to say “no” in a kind way. Don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of. Employers are often guilty of over-depending on their standout employees and then becoming shocked when those employees experience burnout. I’ve learned being the dependable, capable one often gets you taken advantage of.

7) Lash out at others. It’s easy to lose patience when your nerves are fried and to treat others poorly when you’re feeling poorly, yourself.

I feel that this is a very important topic, as it affects everybody, the majority of us on a daily basis. Have I missed any points or helpful tips related to this topic? Please let me know!

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