What to do when you are overwhelmed.

In the morning when you wake the dread is already on your shoulder. You feel the panic rising and swallow hard to stop it. It all feels too much.  You pull up your big girl pants and give yourself the pep-talk you have well-rehearsed about just getting on, just doing it, not quitting, not stopping.

Throughout the day you struggle to make decisions. You find yourself rushing from one thing to another, worrying about what won’t get done. Your breath catches in your chest. You feel you are always dropping the ball. The other shoe is about to fall. You are going to miss something vital. You fear if you relax for just one moment it will all fall apart.

In the evening when the kids are in bed you pull out your laptop desperately trying to stay on top of the emails and admin tasks that built up in the day without your knowledge, as though they were planing a covert mission to topple you. You put the washing in and sort out another load, you do the dishes and prepare the lunches for the next day. You dare not stop because what would happen if you did? Tomorrow would become even more impossible.

You are in the overwhelm. You are drowning, unable to see the end, the exit, the time when it will all calm down and you can finally rest.

I know the feeling.

I have spent days, weeks, even months on this merry-go-round, unable to get off, unable to find peace.

But I have learnt I do not have to experience my life as a runaway train I am forever trying to steer back on course through my own effort.

Here are some things that have helped me ‘in the moment’, some practical tips for if you are in the overwhelm right now:

  1. First: stop. Take a moment. Even if you think it is going to make you late or derail the rest of your day, pause here and now. Still your body. Put your phone down. Breathe deeply. Breathe in for seven counts and out for eleven counts. Are you doing it now? And again. Breathe slowly. As you do your body will remind your brain that you are in charge and can bring calm into your day. I know you think this is a waste of time but I can assure you, never will you have spent time better. Do it. Stop. You can spare three or four minutes. Slow your breathing down.
  2. Look at your to-do list. Whether it is a mental list or a written one, or one on a fancy digital device, take a moment to read it through. I know, it all feels utterly vital. But stop and read it again. Look for the tasks that you think are imperative but actually could wait, or someone else could take responsibility for. I know, I know, you are saying it will take too long to tell someone else how to do it, it will be easier to just do it yourself. Trust me, it won’t. Take back control. I am guessing the list you have is too long for today. Keeping it this length will only end in you feeling more overwhelmed as you haven’t managed to achieve all you thought you should be able to. Pre-empt this and remove some things from your list. Send an apologetic email and tell someone the work they were expecting is not going to be ready for the date you had previously agreed. Cancel coffee with a friend you feel you should see (you cancelled on her last time and she is having a really tough time). Be vulnerable with her, tell her how much you are struggling, tell her you love her, she will understand.
  3. Take the easy option. Where you thought you had to do the fancy thing, take the easy option. Tell your friends who are coming for dinner you will be getting take out. Tell your kids they will be on school dinners this week. Order an online food shop – or tell you other half/ children to order one for you (it won’t be perfect but you will muddle through with the food they order). Forget searching for a thoughtful gift and get vouchers or put money in a card. Don’t worry if the house is messy, you will all survive. Get dinner out of the freezer or from the fish and chip shop.
  4. Ask for help. Who can help you? And what would be the most helpful kind of help? Someone coming to clean your house? Someone to pick the kids up from school/ drive them to sports clubs or tournaments? Someone to babysit and help the kids with homework? Figure out what you really need and ditch the pride. You might have to ask a few people – some of them might say no – but keep asking until you find someone who can take something off your plate and ease your load.

When you feel overwhelmed it seems impossible that it can be made any easier. When you are constantly chasing to keep up the problem-solving part of your brain cannot be activated. Feeling overwhelmed is known to make us less productive and can mean we work with less clarity.

So even if your gut says there is no way out and you just need to figure out how to survive on less sleep and keep pushing on, stop for a few minutes to breathe and rest, your brain might just begin to find the solutions you are looking for.

So those were ideas to help you manage overwhelm ‘in the moment’, but I need to ask you another question:

Is this feeling of overwhelm new?

Is it something that is only relevant now as you are in this season of stretch?

Or, do you regularly find yourself in this place?

If this is not your first rodeo and you have been here before it may be worth asking some further questions about how your life is working.

When you are in the thick of overwhelm it can feel as though you have no choice and this is how it has to be.

But it doesn’t.

You don’t have to live at full tilt all the time, racing, speeding, trying to cram as much into your life.

We do this because we think if we do then we will find fulfilment, accomplishment, and success.

Newsflash: that is a load of crap.

More is not necessarily better. Faster is not necessarily the best option. Success and achievement may not deliver what you think they will.

Through tough experience I have learnt I can’t keep pushing without inevitable fall out.

Always reaching for the next goal, looking for the next persons’ approval, trying to look a certain way, be respected in a certain context, or achieve a certain goal, made me ill. The constant striving for more and bigger and better ended in collapse, in burn out, in mental illness.

I have been slowly carving out a new way to be. A life that doesn’t exist only in the overwhelm.

Of course there are weeks and sometimes terms where life is busy and I feel loaded with responsibilities, but these days this is not the norm.

I have learnt to prioritise rest, to put relationships and health above achievement and success, to step off the merry-go-round that sees productivity as a status symbol (as Brene Brown would say).

At first it felt odd, to allow myself time to rest and enjoy my life. But it also felt good.

Ann Voskamp writes that life is not an emergency, it is a gift. But unless you allow yourself time, and learn to pace your life, to manage your schedule and say no when things are too much, you will never be able to enjoy the richness and satisfaction this gift can bring.

If you are in the overwhelm now know this: you are doing great. Don’t judge yourself harshly, regularly remember to let yourself off the hook and give yourself buckets of grace as you navigate this time.

But also know this: it doesn’t have to stay this way. You get to choose how you live your life. Don’t overfill it, or chase success which is never going to fulfil. Be present. Enjoy being with the important people in your life. Know you are loved.

You got this

Big love x

Sign up to my blog and receive a free meditation

Sign up to my blog today and receive a free meditation. Print it off and stick it up on your wall or put it in your bag to pull out and read whenever you feel overwhelmed. You will also receive weekly (-ish) emails from me with some thoughts and a link to my latest post, no spam or nonsense ever! Thanks!

  • Alice Hart
    Posted at 06:08h, 02 November Reply

    Love this, I try to do all these. Ive learned it takes a lot of practice to be able to stop, re-prioritise and let go. The only reason it’s hard comes from within and my expectations of myself, not from anyone else. But I’ve learned if I don’t I just compound the problem and end up functioning on adrenaline which makes me feel constantly “jangly” as one of lovely friends describes it perfectly. That’s just a pathway to panic attacks so practising and getting better at all those things you’ve described is so important. Just an extra idea too, I sometimes look at the month ahead in terms of all our family commitments – birthday parties, family visits, swimming lessons, catch up with friends, etc. in the context of everything else going on during the week (school projects due in, Beaver outings, husband away for work etc) and I just cancel/postpone some things in favour of just being together as a family and putting us first.

  • Naomi
    Posted at 11:41h, 02 November Reply

    This is so, so relevant for me this week. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Louise O'Mahony
    Posted at 10:39h, 09 November Reply

    Thanks for this – its really useful
    Regarding the breathe in for 7 and out for 11.
    I can only manage breathing in for 4.
    Its something that has been bothering me for a while -wondering if anyone else finds this difficult. I almost feel like theres a block.
    I guess its something that should improve with practise? But I probably just dont practise enough

Post A Comment