Updated: Apr 23
An author I enjoy recently wrote in her newsletter about feeling like the inside of her brain felt like a pinball machine where you just hit the jackpot and all the lights and noises are now going off. This sentiment was incredibly relatable and provides a very succinct description of how it feels when you are overwhelmed. It is hard to focus, your body is tense, and it is hard to imagine the other side of the emotion. Overwhelm can be caused by too large of a to-do list, a challenging life situation, not enough sleep, or even just not feeling equipped for the things that life is requiring of you at that moment. It can show up in a variety of ways such as: dissociating with your phone, outbursts of anger, tears, stomach pain, or difficulty sleeping. Overwhelm is a sneaky feeling that can suddenly appear, or it can be something that builds over time.
Here are my tips for practically dealing with overwhelm and starting to feel a little bit more like a person:
Do one thing that will help slow your body down. When we get overwhelmed, it is often our body that experiences the emotion first. I often tell my clients that coping skills are things that we do to give our bodies time to catch up with what we logically know. As anyone who has experienced overwhelming emotions before, it can be hard to think clearly with all of the signals your body is sending you. Creating a physical margin for yourself can help you become more grounded in the reality that you are safe and not in harm's way. Some suggestions: take a 5-10 minute walk, spend one minute practicing slow deep breaths, listen to a song that boosts your mood or is calming, or drink something soothing like cold water or hot tea.
Take a quick inventory of any outside factors that might be contributing to your feelings of overwhelm. A good place to start is with your physical body. Have you had enough sleep? Have you eaten today? Could there be any hormonal contributors to your emotions? There can also be situational contributors that are creating less margin in your life right now. For example, a long to-do list is going to feel much different when you have a newborn versus life pre-child. Or maybe there is an ongoing family health challenge that is taking up mental and emotional space. It is also worth acknowledging if any of the stressors leading to overwhelm bring up triggers from your past. The process of acknowledging where you are right now, without judgment, can decrease overwhelm by either giving you some quick solutions to feeling better or allowing you to give yourself grace for the season of life you are in.
Write it all out. More often than not, things feel worse in our heads than they do when we can process them out loud. Writing out your to-do list or the emotions/situations causing you to stress helps you process and prioritize.
Determine what is in your control and out of your control. Now that you have created your list and written out your thoughts it is time to assess whether or not things you’ve written can or need to be resolved by you. There will likely be things that you have written down that cannot be resolved. This does not mean that they are not important, but, to decrease overwhelm, we want to focus on eliminating the controllable things. Taking care of controllable tasks, emotions, or conversations helps reduce the mental weight you are carrying and free up space to process the uncontrollable things on your list.
Decide if the controllable things need to be dealt with now or later. Essentially, this step is to prioritize. There may be things that are in your power to do that just simply can wait or be put to the side. When you are overwhelmed, wasting time on things that could wait or are not important is simply not helpful. For example, would the world fall apart if you did not get to make dinner tonight and ordered pizza instead? Maybe it would be because you need the leftovers or you’re on a tight budget, but, the point is, you get to decide what is important to you right now and what can wait. We are getting that mental load smaller and smaller.
Ask for help. Help can mean any number of things whether that is someone taking on a logistical task for you or someone who offers you emotional support. If there is someone that can help you shoulder some of your current burdens, do not be afraid to reach out.
Take a few more deep breaths. Remember this season or these feelings will pass.
Do one thing at a time. All you have to do is take the next right step ahead of you. That could be getting something small done so you have a little win. It could be tackling the one thing that stresses you out the most so that it is not hanging over your head. You do not have to plan the whole day. Just take it one step at a time. Then repeat until you’ve hit your limit for the day.
Be kind to yourself. Take some rest. After you have done all that you can remember that you are a whole, complete person with finite resources. Your value is not what you do or how you feel. Giving yourself grace is probably the most important part of decreasing overwhelm. You got this.
Post Script: Overwhelm can sometimes be caused by triggers to past trauma. If that is the case for you, these tips might be less effective. Recovering from trauma is a process of reestablishing safety with yourself and others. These tips might be helpful at the moment but be gentle with yourself if they do not as trauma recovery takes time.