Most everyone has had one of those days where life seems to demand too much, there is not enough time in the day, or stress seems unmanageable. Those dreaded feelings of overwhelm encroach and threaten to completely swallow the day.
Feeling overwhelmed at times is a normal part of life, so knowing how to best cope is vital to overcome it. Try these five tried and true suggestions to prevent or conquer the beast that is known as overwhelm.
What Is Overwhelm?
Overwhelm can be defined as feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion, or in other words, believing a stressor is too mighty to manage at the time. It wears many faces and can manifest as:
• Severe mood swings
• Unhelpful thought patterns
• Intense worry
• Doubt or helplessness
• Abnormal behaviors such as a panic attack or picking unnecessary fights.
Physiological symptoms like sweating, chest pain, lightheadedness, and rapid heartbeat can also accompany the bothersome feeling.
Furthermore, basically anything can trigger overwhelm and consequences will look different for everyone. Some typical triggers include a long to-do list, tough co-workers, a major life event like divorce, finances, or emotionally charged situations. Sometimes, a few small triggers culminate in feeling overwhelmed.
Whatever the cause of this feeling is, there are effective ways to manage overwhelm. Some are rather typical (because they truly work) and others are more unique and require mindfulness and dedication.
Nonetheless, keep an open mind and do not give up until you find and master coping mechanisms that work.
Accept the Emotion
It may seem odd, but accepting the feeling of overwhelm is the first step to overcome it. Disregarding the feeling can actually keep someone paralyzed by overwhelm longer. Psychologist Marla Diebler suggests thinking of acceptance like riding out a wave. Rather than drowning in the wave, acknowledge and accept the feeling and know that it shall eventually pass.
Acceptance really embodies controlling the possible and surrendering to the rest. It provides space for uncertainty without dwelling on the unknown. While not always easy, it is imperative to avoid unnecessary struggle.
Plus, many people practice radical acceptance already without realizing it. Any time one gets in a car, they are accepting the uncontrollable risk that another person could hit them. When someone enters a relationship, they accept that it might not work out long term. Yet, people still choose to do these things and focus on what they can control – driving skills and the treatment of another person.
It can help to write down the controllable versus uncontrollable factors contributing to the overwhelmed feeling to then help make a plan of action. If trying this step alone doesn't work, consider seeking a mental health professional that can assist with radical acceptance.
Originally, grounding was also called earthing and involved therapeutic techniques that energetically reconnect a person to the earth. It relies on earthing science and grounding physics that explain how electrical charges affect the mind and body.
Though still relevant, the definition has further expanded to include practices that help someone to refocus on the present moment. Grounding is used to help manage anxiety, PTSD, self-harm urges, traumatic memories, and other dissociative feelings and conditions.
One of the most popular grounding practices is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This mindfulness technique involves using all five senses. For example, someone would name 5 things they see nearby, identify 4 sounds they hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 smells, and 1 thing they can taste. This not only interrupts overwhelm, but grounds one to their senses and present moment and suspends spinning thoughts to allow for focus on the present moment.
Other grounding methods include:
• Immersing a body part or body in cold or warm temperatures
• Deep breathing
• Sipping herbal tea
• Walking directly on dirt or grass
• Holding ice
• Using essential oils
• Bullet journaling
• Moving the body
• Yoga or pilates
• Visualizing positivity or calmness
• Reciting something from memory
• Playing a mind game
• Listening to music
• Squishing a stress ball
• Utilizing resistance bands
While cleaning nearby space is truly a proven way to manage overwhelm, tidying up also implicates mental and emotional space, relationships, social obligations, and work duties. It is much more likely to feel overwhelmed when your surroundings, environment, and life feel chaotic. And in today's busy bee culture, it is common to be involved in too many arenas, to have too many obligations, or try to foster too many relationships.
Thus, tidying up, organizing, and prioritizing factors beyond the cause of overwhelm can create a ripple effect that reduces overall stress. Lessen or stop feeling overwhelmed with the detailed tips below.
research shows that the concept of multitasking is a myth because the brain cannot fully focus on more than one task at once. Meaning, one isn't able to give 100% to a task at hand if trying to simultaneously do something else too.
Learn to Say "No"
Prioritizing truly enjoyable events and saying "no" to ones that feel more like obligations not only frees time but can also feel empowering. Consider your values and how you truly enjoy spending time and then only say "yes" to events that coincide.
Clean a Physical Space
Tidying or organizing a physical space can help restore some order and offer a sense of accomplishment that can then bleed into other areas. Sorting a desk is a great option when feeling overwhelmed at work.
This tried and true method is so popular that this phrase was coined– "Outer order, inner calm."
Prioritize Important Relationships
Trying to disperse energy to too many people generally does not work out well and can make all relationships less meaningful. Prioritize the most important ones and give undivided attention during those interactions.
Prioritizing can also reduce stress from toxic relationships or ones that simply do not serve you anymore.
Ask for Help at Work
Whether delegating, asking for an extension, or voicing concern, get support to reduce overwhelm. Feeling lonely or solely responsible can easily cause stress at work, as can working a miserable job or with tough people day-in and day-out.
Seek Professional Help
Talking with a therapist or life coach can significantly help to tidy emotions and mental health. Professionals are trained in therapeutic techniques that teach people how to cope with life's stressors.
Plus, they can help sort what is in and out of your control and are great at reality checking!
Sometimes overwhelm stems from not knowing where to start on a task list or within work or even the home. Assigning importance to each task and identifying which ones need to be prioritized can help organize the mind and ease chaotic stress. It can be hard to accept that trying to accomplish everything all the time is the fastest slide to overwhelm.
Instead, skip the shoulds, complete the needs, and give yourself grace along the way. After all, you can do anything, but not everything!
When feeling overwhelmed, it is common to procrastinate or avoid doing anything at all. However, this usually backfires, as it wastes time and then leads to even more stress.
Therefore, commit to taking one step. That step does not need to be related to a to-do list but should be productive towards reducing overwhelm. Taking action could look like:
• Going for a walk
• Meditating or another grounding technique
• Phoning a friend to make an action plan
• Taking a bath or shower
• Cleaning a room in the home
• Making a nourishing meal
• Scheduling a therapy appointment
• Tackling one small item on a to-do-list
Avoid engaging tasks that promote distraction or bypassing the feeling of overwhelm such as scrolling social media, watching TV, online shopping, trying to fix other people's problems, or prolonged sleeping. Taking a power nap can be beneficial, but make sure to set intentions that it is for the purpose of recharging and rejuvenating and not escaping!
The Bottom Line
Overwhelm can be a very unpleasant feeling that leads to negative emotional outbursts, panic attacks, irrational thoughts, and more. If frequent, it can lead to chronic stress that manifests as emotional, mental, and physical health issues down the road. Thus, it is important to understand how to cope when feeling overwhelmed.
Trying the above methods is a great starting point because research shows they can truly work. However, everyone will manage a little bit differently, so tweak the suggestions as needed. Most importantly, believe that you can indeed conquer overwhelm. Relief is certainly possible with intentional action!
Raypole C. 30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts. Healthline. Published May 24, 2019. www.healthline.com/health/grounding-techniques.
Santilli E. 10 Easy Ways To Cope With Stress When You're Overwhelmed. HuffPost. Updated December 25, 2014. www.huffpost.com/entry/10-ways-to-cope-with-stress-and-overwhelm_b_6033802.
Tartakovsky M. Overwhelmed? These 6 Strategies May Help. Psych Central. Published October 16, 2012. psychcentral.com/blog/overwhelmed-these-6-strategies-may-help#2.
Wu J. 8 Strategies to Manage Overwhelming Feelings. Psychology Today. Published May 20, 2020. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-savvy-psychologist/202005/8-strategies-manage-overwhelming-feelings.