A Practical Guide To Beating Overwhelm

There are times in life when feeling overwhelmed is totally normal and expected. Life catches us by surprise in one way or another, and suddenly our to-do list is a mile long. We’re not sure if we have the time to get it all done, nor the drive and gumption to follow it through to the end. We begin to doubt ourselves as feelings of inadequacy and scarcity rise up from within, and the monsters of overwhelm move in to claim their space. 

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. For many people, the pace of their life is not optimal and it causes some fundamentally upsetting feelings at times. But there are many ways to get out from under that awful overwhelm. This guide will shine a light on them, so next time you’ve got some tools to use.

What Causes Overwhelm?

A wide variety of stressors may cause a person to become overwhelmed:

  • relationship issues
  • money problems
  • too much work
  • not enough work
  • politics
  • pandemics
  • health scares
  • environmental concerns
  • unhealed trauma 

Often when we get overwhelmed, regardless of the underlying cause, we find ourselves unable to focus on one thing, get anything done at all, think clearly, make the right decision… even basics like sleeping and breathing become difficult. 

Many people experiencing overwhelm find that while they can’t sleep, they can’t get out of bed either. When we’re this overwhelmed, how do we cope? Where to start? 

Understanding Overwhelm

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed, you know that angsty feeling it surfaces. It often arrives alongside confusion, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mind fog, trouble thinking logically and impaired problem solving ability. Exhaustion on a cognitive level is soon to follow, further disrupting thinking and hindering focus. 

As you might expect, all these things contribute to the existing feelings of overwhelm, adding fuel to the fire and worsening cognitive symptoms. It’s important to know that feelings of overwhelm, and how quickly they can come up, have nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. Where and how overwhelm hits us, involves our unique sense of the world and how we move through it. 

Functioning at an optimal level while feeling overwhelmed is not just difficult, it might be nearly impossible. Feelings of overwhelm tend to surface the very primal threat of scarcity that’s wired right into our DNA. Scarcity not just of time, but of resources and energy too. In addition there is the threat of failure, of disappointing others, feeling like you’re not doing enough, and like what you do won’t matter. Overwhelm happens when we don’t believe we can cope with what life is throwing at us. Overwhelm sends us into a state of fight, flight, or freeze, and as with any stressor, each of us react differently.

Procrastination Nation

In the midst of overwhelm it’s easy to just freeze, and many of us do. But unfortunately, that’s not the most productive thing. If you find yourself cozying up to another 14 hour Netflix marathon, or mindlessly scrolling Facebook when there are real deadlines looming, you might be experiencing overwhelm. It’s best to get unstuck as soon as possible, because your to-do list ain’t gonna do itself. But more importantly than that, your sanity deserves a return to the spotlight. You can handle these feelings, learn to work with them, and even conquer them.

Why Am I Overwhelmed So Easily?

If you find yourself overwhelmed by simple tasks, or no task at all, or every single task out there, it’s important to know that regulating emotions can be an even bigger challenge for people who:

  • experience anxiety & mood disorders 
  • are on the autism spectrum
  • live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Feeling overwhelmed is a common symptom of anxiety, and there is a lot of anxiety out there. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million US adults (that’s about 1 in 5 people) are living with an anxiety disorder. In US children aged 3-17, approximately 7 percent experience issues with anxiety.  

The average age of ADHD diagnosis is 7 years old. Though not as prevalent as anxiety, a surprising 13 percent of males and 4.2 percent of females are diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lifetime.

If you find yourself overwhelmed easily, and are living with one of these conditions, know that what you’re feeling is real and deserves attention. Your way out is through the feelings.

How To Care For Yourself When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, emotions, life, relationships, expectations, whatever… here are 10 things you can do right now to stop overwhelm and regain some equilibrium so you can start planning your next move:

  1. Give yourself a time out: Take 5 minutes and just walk away from whatever is going on. 
  2. Go to the gym: Get dressed, put some headphones on, and sweat it out.
  3. Take a walk outside: Put on some shoes and take a stroll around the block. 
  4. Breathe deeply: Take deep breaths, making the exhales a bit longer than the inhales.
  5. Get someone else to do it: Can some of this be offloaded to someone else?
  6. Blow it off altogether: Will the sky fall if this thing just doesn’t happen?
  7. Talk it out: Phone a friend, grab a coffee, have a heart to heart with someone you trust.
  8. Write it down: If there’s no one to talk to, writing down your feelings can help a lot.
  9. Sleep on it: Revisit the thing with a clearer head after you’ve gotten some R&R.
  10. Just say no: Saying “yes” to this means saying “no” to that. Can you just say no to something, and lighten the burden a bit?

Can Feelings Of Overwhelm Ever Be A Good Thing? 

As with anything that puts us into a fight or flight state, overwhelm is a sign from the deepest parts of us that something is happening and our attention is required. Though you might be hard-pressed to think of feelings of overwhelm as “good”, they are undoubtedly pointing you toward an area that needs attention. If you’re coping with overwhelm, here are 4 ways to stay grounded.

  1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling: Emotions are information. Being able to articulate what you’re feeling is a demonstration of the self-awareness that’s required to understand it and take action. 
  2. Know what you can control and what you cannot: Is it possible to avoid certain situations that cause overwhelm for you? Do you have to doomscroll the entire day away, or could you just do it for an hour a day? Are you eating right and exercising, giving yourself every chance to be and feel strong?
  3. Use affirmations and guided meditations: Thoughts become things, and in the midst of overwhelm, swirling thoughts can whip us into a frenzy. Take 5 and press play; re-calibrate with some empowering mantras, or take a mental walk through a meadow. You’ve got this.
  4. Avoid making a mountain out of a molehill: Imagining the worst possible outcome may be wise in certain circumstances, but it’s never wise to set up camp there. If you find yourself catastrophizing everything in your mind, go back to step 1, rinse and repeat as needed.

Shift Your Mindset & Put Overwhelm In Its Place

While feelings of overwhelm can be totally normal and perhaps even helpful in pointing us toward an area that needs our attention, it’s important not to let it get in the way of living your life. There is enough time for everything; the trick is to get out from under the weight of overwhelm so that you can think clearly and plan the right course of action for you. 

When you’re rested, breathing deeply, and crystal clear on what you’re feeling and why, the path forward will be more apparent. You may even find that feelings of overwhelm just fall right off your shoulders like water off a duck’s back. You’ve got this, whatever it is. Believe that in your heart, and you’re well on your way to peace of mind.

You have a lot of breaths to take in your lifetime, but you can’t take them all right now. So just take one breath, and fully take that breath. That’s the only breath happening right now, and the rest will come in time. – Leo Babauta 


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