How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed: an Ultimate Guide
Do you sometimes feel like you cannot do anything? The benign to-do list seems scarier than the boogeyman. And instead of starting your next task, you are sitting there staring at something on the wall in a semi-trance state.
It's called emotional overwhelm.
When I feel this way, I always imagine steam coming out of my ears. It does lift my mood a bit but does not help to progress much.
How to tell we are feeling overwhelmed?
You feel overwhelmed when you are near consumed by an intense emotion that is not easy to snap out of. According to GoodTherapy, it affects your ability to 'think and act rationally'.
This intense emotion might make you feel anxious and unable to do anything apart from some repetitive tasks, like clicking your mouse or scrolling an Instagram feed. You sort of freeze.
Do you know why?
Our brain cannot tell the difference between real and imagined threat!
Your body will respond with similar 'fight-flight-freeze' response whether a bike is about to run you over or you are freaking out because of all the tasks on your to-do list.
The signs are similar: sweaty palms, racing heart and panic.
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD and Clinical Psychologist describes it very nicely in her podcast , she says:
'You brain doesn’t just see a to-do list; it sees a threat. It sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into twenty-four hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the danger of disappointing others, the threat of feeling incapable.'
If you would like to find out more about feeling overwhelmed and what to do to avoid it as much as possible - continue reading. Or at least scan through some of my recommendations, as they form part of self-care routine and might help you lead a more fulfilling life. Here is a quick outline of great things to come in this article.
Signs to look out for that might indicate you might be experiencing an emotional overwhelm
6 quick tips to help you out
7 steps to take to cure your emotional state
Why do simple things overwhelm us so?
There are many possible reasons. We might feel overwhelmed when we take too much on. We carry on for some time and then stop - unable to proceed.
It also creeps up when we overthink things and when we create to-do lists and prioritise activities without aligning them with our goals, dreams and desires.
Another reason is a realisation that we are fulfilling someone else's dreams, not ours.
Dr Jade Wu from Savvy Psychologist, says that procrastination is one of the ways that 'fight-flight-freeze' response reveals itself.
So now you know that when you catch yourself checking your phone for no apparent reason or scrolling through Instagram feeds for the umpteenth time - a feeling of overwhelm might be at play.
Even though every one of us is feeling overwhelmed once in a while, if left without attention, it could lead to more severe side effect such as an anxiety attack. Which, in turn, could lead to burnout.
Hence it is vital to notice the warning signs.
6 signs of overwhelm
Please, however, note that these signs might be related to something else, including depression. Read this article from Mental Health America to be able to tell the difference between stress and depressed. If you suspect something more serious, please contact a specialist.
Inability to concentrate on anything for a long period of time
Switching from task to task
Racing heart and sweaty palms
Frequent mood changes
For more signs of overwhelm, read this article from Cope Centres for Psychiatric Excellence.
5 quick techniques to snap you out of 'freeze' state
So what do you do when you are feeling overwhelmed, and procrastination is about to take over your life?
There are simple tips that you can follow - they are easy, accessible and straightforward. And should help with disrupting your thought process and sort of snap you out of the state of mental paralysis.
1. Stop what you are doing
Unless you are in the middle of a meeting or driving - stop, stand up and walk out of the room, away from your desk/phone/to-do list.
If you cannot physically leave - sit back and close your eyes. Gently massage your temples.
2. Have a glass of water
A simple act of drinking water will fulfil two goals:
it will slow your mind down and calm your senses.
it will rehydrate your body - quite often we feel more stressed out when we are thirsty.
Clinical Psychologist Daniel Sher says that there is a complicated relationship between thirst and anxiety. He advises drinking some water if you are feeling anxious. Regardless of whether you are feeling anxious because you are thirsty or you are thirsty hence feeling slightly worried - drinking water is always a good and healthy first step into figuring out what is a real cause of your discomfort.
3. Get some fresh air
If you are in the office, go to the window - open it and breathe some air. If you are at home - go for a little walk.
4. Count from 1 to 10 and then backwards from 10 to 1
Counting a few times will help you to calm down and refocus.
And counting backwards will make you concentrate a little bit more and hopefully make you less anxious.
5. Try 'The Grounding Chair' Exercise
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Sarah Allen, suggests trying an exercise called ’The Grounding chair’ where you sit in the chair and try feeling your surrounding, your body touching the fabrics, your feet touching the ground and breathing slowly.
7 easy steps to stop feeling overwhelmed and reach a more balanced state
Now you are ready to try some techniques to deal with feeling overwhelmed.
Our goal is to arrive at clarity through planning and grounding techniques.
1. Start by clearing out your working 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 to ground you.
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 only
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 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 down, 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 to 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 be 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 nights sleep but a particular tough week in general. Kids might be unwell, too much work, etc. This might exacerbate the fragile scales of our well-being and move it towards overwhelm.
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.
7 tips to help you avoid feeling overwhelmed in the future
There are a few things you can start doing differently to avoid future near burnout.
1. Plan as much as you can
Planning helps to avoid feeling overwhelmed as long as you don’t cram everything in. But make sure you don't set too high expectations either as they also can lead to burnout.
Be honest with yourself and include only important items to your to-do list. Be ruthless by removing not important or ‘good to do’ things.
Also, go through your list and remove things that are not your tasks, but someone else's. For example, your mum would like you to learn to knit. If it's not your dream and an ultimate goal - delete it! Let your mum know that knitting is not your dream and it's not important to you at this moment in life.
2. Journal your feelings
Melissa Harris, artist and an author, says that keeping a journal is a great tool to uncluttered the mind. Whenever you start feeling that state of paralysis approaching, take a piece of paper and write everything that you are feeling down. Getting it on paper might help you to get it off your chest and start working on your tasks with a renewed energy.
3. Say ‘no' to things
Learn to say ‘no‘ to tasks, requests, invites. The world is full of opportunities, but unless you learnt to say ‘no‘ to some of them, there would never be the end of things.
4. Have realistic expectations
Some things are out of our control. For instance, we cannot control the weather - you’ve planned a picnic with your kids, but it’s raining. It could quickly make you anxious and overwhelmed. But if you take everything in your stride, accepting that things might not be the way you’ve planned them you would be able to deal with things so much easier.
5. Get rid of perfectionism
Perfectionism is not your friend, it’s a foe. Learn to identify it and let go of it as soon as it shows its head.
6. Set your priorities right
Be honest with yourself - do you really need to complete all of those tasks on your to-do list today? Can any of it wait?
7. Say goodbye to FOMO (fear of missing out)
The fear of missing out is a real thing. It makes you always think you should be doing more, rushing, striving, following, reading. You cannot follow everyone or read everything. So accept it. Learn to prioritise what’s important and let go of what’s not.
Well, guess what?
Even the best of us would sometimes feel overstretched and paralysed by our never-ending to-do lists.
Regardless of why and when you are feeling overwhelmed, the trick is to learn to quickly identify this state for what it is without criticising yourself, without thinking there is something wrong with you.
The next step is to pause, try to calm down and try the steps to rebalance your state of mind.
Make sure you keep updating your list of useful tips and tricks. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. Keep adding to it, keep experimenting and one day you will notice that those feelings of near-paralysis and burnout don't happen as often as they used to.
Alternatively, you could always try a more light-hearted approach, where the main goal is to use humour and unorthodox solutions to conquer that feeling of overwhelm.