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10 Practical Things to Do When Feeling Overwhelmed

Updated: Jan 19

Don't fear stress. It's only scary at a first glance. Make it your friend and you will empower yourself and use your emotions as a practical instrument at your disposal.

A digital sketch of a girl going from overwhelmed with her head in the table to calm and happily meditating

The worst thing we can do when feeling overwhelmed is give in and stay in the headspace that is painful, uncomfortable and unhealthy.

Instead, I suggest we try out simple and practical psychological self-care tips that could turn any discomfort into an opportunity.

Don't believe me? Test my go-to 10 recommendations and see for yourself if they work or not.

But don't feel you need to do them all. Not at all. Choose one or two that make your heart sing with anticipation when you look at it. See if it makes discomfort go away. Then try another one, just for fun.

If you are lucky - by the end of your little experiment, you will have 10 exercises you can rely on when feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

A digital sketch of a girl decluttering

1. Clear out or declutter your space

Clear space - clear mind. It is easier to think and work in a tidy space. By clearing it out, you might, for instance, discover useful notes that you forgot about. It’s also a meditative task that should help you feel more grounded. And this activity is very practical as you will achieve two things for the cost of one: you'll stop feeling as overwhelmed and you'll tidy up some areas of your house.

2. Accept things that are out of your control

No matter how hard you plan something, you cannot control everything. You need to learn to accept it and live with it.

Ask yourself a simple question:

"Is it in my power to change it?"

If the answer is no, breathe in and out and say, "I am letting it go."

3. Create a to-do list of essential things

Ditch anything that might be ‘good to-do‘. Only include items that need to be done.

4. Prioritise your to-do list

Be as dispassionate as you can and cut the list you’ve just created only by leaving items that are a high priority for today.

Move to a separate list of anything that is not important or urgent. Review the ‘not important’ lists some other time, and you’ll be surprised to see how many of those items could be deleted altogether.

5. Experiment with 'what if' technique

Now that you have your list of prioritised tasks written, have a think of what would happen if you do not complete them today.

Go wild and crazy - be as melodramatic as you wish. Exaggerate! Include humour. The goal is to snap yourself out of the paralysis and restart your system by allowing you to see the error of your ways.

The thing is that you stop noticing what’s ‘wrong‘ with your to-do list because you’ve been looking at it for so long.

"What if" exercise should help you identify important tasks and reduce your list even further.

6. Explore if other circumstances are at play

Michelle Nickolaisen writing for the Lifehack suggests evaluating if there is anything else that is making your feeling of overwhelm more intense.

For instance, have you had enough sleep?

If the answer is ‘no’, then go easy on yourself. It might be the lack of sleep that's playing a bit of a havoc with your emotions. Make sure you allow your body to rest as much as possible.

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed after a good night's sleep but a particularly tough week. Kids might be unwell, too much work, etc. This might exacerbate the fragile scales of our well-being and move it towards overwhelming.

Just allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. Acknowledge that ,as a human, you have limits.

"One thing that is particularly helpful is to practice these techniques when you are not feeling overwhelmed. These strategies are like building a muscle, and are easier to use the more you practice." - Talkspace therapist Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

7. Complete one task from your to-do list

Choose the smallest and the easiest task from your new to-do list. Just do it. Without thinking or feeling sorry for yourself.

Tell yourself that after you’ve done this task and if you are still feeling overwhelmed, you can go and hide for a bit and cry if you want to.

The chances are that after you do one thing, you will feel much better.

A photo of a bullet journal. One way to help you stop feeling overwhelmed

8. Practice slow breathing technique

Breathing, if done slowly and mindfully, is an amazing tool to conquer overwhelm and battle stress.

Don't believe me?

Studies conducted show that there is a clear link between slow relaxing breathing and improved wellbeing. But slowing down and being mindful of your breathing could be beneficial simply because it allows us to pause and be aware of how we feel. There are numerous slow breathing exercises available online.

When I am overwhelmed, I don't have time or desire to remember anything fancy. I simply breathe in on the count of four and breathe out on the count of four. Then I increase it to six and then back to four. It always helps me to stabilise my senses.

A digital sketch of a man running away from a tiger indicating the worst that could happen

9. What's the worst that could happen

Overwhelm is caused by things in our lives that are spiralling out of control.

This exercise, even though it might sound scary, is useful to help us get a grip. If we imagine the worst outcome of the situation that overwhelms us, we might feel worse to begin with.

But once the initial panic is over, you'll start feeling better as the worst-case scenarios might look rather ridiculous.

For example, when it was time for my eldest to start school, my might started racing: what will she eat, who she will be friends with, how many days of holiday I need to pre-book? Once I imagined the worst-case scenario, I literally breathed out. Nothing seemed as scary as I imagined.

Read more whimsical and lighthearted ideas on how to deal with stress in my post 7 Light-Hearted Tips to Help You Relax When You are Feeling Overwhelmed

10. Treat overwhelm and stress as your friend

When you are in the midst of it, it's difficult to see how this nasty feeling could be good for us.

But it's true.

There is scientific proof behind it too.

The hugging hormone oxytocin is also a stress hormone. When we are stressed, it's our body's way of protecting us by preparing to run, fight or maybe even bite whatever danger we are faced with. When we are stressed, it only means our body is mobilised, ready to act.

So, next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, take a moment to thank your body for being such a good friend and guardian. And while you are doing it, watch your stress levels go down because gratitude cancels out overwhelm.

I highly recommend you watch this Ted video by a psychologist, Kelly McGonigal to learn more. It explains how stress is not something we should fear. It's all about how we view it and what we do our reactions.

Final thoughts

We all feel emotional overwhelm from time to time. But it's a very human condition and it won't last forever. We can take easy steps to improve the way we feel. One tiny step at a time.


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