“Some days you will feel like the ocean. Some days you will feel like you are drowning in it.”
Ain’t that the truth. Life comes at you fast. You get laid off and don’t have enough money in savings, a family member gets sick, your car gets totaled. All of a sudden, you’re totally underwater.
Often, though, it’s not one catastrophic event that gets you; it’s the sum total of all the small-to-medium-sized stressors in your life. Death by papercuts, if you will. Overwhelm results from having too much or not enough — too much to do, too many responsibilities, not enough money or time.
Overwhelm quickly becomes a vicious cycle, as it requires energy and resources (neither of which you have in abundance) to dig yourself out. A classic sign of overwhelm is feeling like you’ve lost control over your circumstances, like things are happening to you instead of for you or because you chose them.
You can’t govern all the sources of stress in your life, but you may have more control than you realize. At the very least, there are probably ways to manipulate your schedule and environment so your stress triggers aren’t so triggering.
Start by asking yourself, “What would need to change in order for me to feel less overwhelmed?” If just that step feels overwhelming, don’t worry. You’re about to start taking action, and action is empowering.
Coping with Overwhelm
Signs of overwhelm include:
Lack of motivation
When you’re already overwhelmed, taking action can feel impossible. However, even when you can’t fix everything all at once, there are almost always small, manageable steps you can take to get the ball rolling.
Disorganization feels chaotic, and chaos is overwhelming.
Everyone needs a calendar and a system for organizing to-do lists. Trying to keep everything straight in your head is a recipe for disaster. There are endless options here: Google Calendar, iCal, Evernote, iPhone Memos, Anylist, old-fashioned paper and pencil, bullet journaling, and on and on. The best one is the one that works for you.
Start your day by making your to-do list, organizing tasks in order of importance and due date. Before mentally checking out for the evening, look ahead to tomorrow’s calendar so you don’t miss early appointments. (Hint: Use habit stacking to make these practices second nature.)
Create a shared calendar with family members so you can see everyone’s schedule in one place.
Use your calendar for daily appointments as well as recurring commitments and tasks, including things like paying credit cards and changing the air filter in your house. That way, you never have to remember to do them and stress when you forget.
Cull Your Commitments
For most people I know, being overcommitted and over-busy is their biggest source of overwhelm. Chances are, you say yes to too many things, too.
What can be outsourced? Put off? Canceled altogether?
Delegate and Outsource
Delegating and outsourcing tasks frees up time, mental energy, and other resources so you can concentrate on the things that matter most. Asking for help can feel vulnerable, though. Rather than admit they’re struggling, folks try to power through on their own, all the while digging themselves into a deeper emotional hole.
Delegating also means ceding control over how things get done. You have to get comfortable with letting people do things their way, even if it’s not how you would do it. Your way might indeed be best, but theirs is probably good enough.
As Ann Landers said, “Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”
Let kids do more
Parental burnout is a widespread problem, in part because parents today feel (real or imagined) pressure to make their children’s lives as easy as possible. Moms, in particular, often believe we are failing somehow if we aren’t doing the absolute most. Yet, we also understand that doing everything for our kids doesn’t really help any of us in the long run.
While they can’t drive themselves to dance class or deal with the barrage of paperwork that comes home from school, kids can do age-appropriate chores. Pick a couple things you’d like to take off your plate and teach your kids to do them. Let them pick up after themselves, fold their own laundry, or pack their own lunches (with options you provide).
Don’t fall into the trap of, “It’s easier just to do it myself.” That’s only true until they learn how to do things properly and accept their new responsibilities. Don’t let them wear you down with whining and half-hearted efforts. Power through. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Hire it out
To the degree your financial situation allows, look for ways to buy more freedom in your schedule. There are plenty of people who are happy to take your money in exchange for cleaning your house, doing yard work, or helping your kids with their homework. Virtual assistants can schedule appointments, make travel arrangements, and do other small tasks that build up on your to-do list.
Think of it as contributing to the economy while also reducing your stress, a win-win.
Say No More Often
You know this. I know you know this. So why is it such a struggle? Because saying no means setting a boundary, and most people aren’t comfortable with boundaries. They feel icky until you get used the idea that, when employed correctly, boundaries protect your space, mental health, and even your relationships.
Repeat after me: saying no isn’t mean, rude, or selfish. Saying no to things you aren’t excited about allows you to devote your precious time to people and opportunities that light you up. They benefit from getting a better, less frazzled version of yourself.
The more you say no, the more you realize how many of the things on your calendar and to-do list are optional. The world doesn’t fall apart when you turn down a committee assignment or miss a party, particularly not when you continue to show up as a reliable employee and caring friend in other ways.
Start saying no to things that aren’t a “heck yes!” If necessary, try to extricate yourself from ongoing commitments that are no longer rewarding. Explain that while you’d love to help/participate/organize/donate your time, your situation has changed, and you no longer have the resources. If possible, suggest someone who can take your place.
Put Routines in Place
Routines reduce decision fatigue and inject a comforting sense of familiarity into your day. A good morning routine sets your day off on the right food, while a calm, comforting evening routine puts you in the right headspace for a restorative night’s sleep.
Setting up weekly routines keeps you organized and reduces strife with other members of your household. Chore charts, for example, designate what chores get done each day and by whom. Overflowing laundry hampers are less overwhelming when you know someone will handle them tomorrow.
Variety may be the spice of life, but when you’re feeling overwhelmed, embrace the concept of strategic repetition. Choose three to five favorite breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and workouts, then cycle through them on repeat. Mix in something new when you feel bored or particularly inspired.
Try Block Scheduling
With block scheduling, you divide your weeks into segments designated for specific tasks. Your blocks could include:
Fun family time
Whatever else makes sense for you
Don’t forget to include a block for relaxation and self-care (non-negotiable!) and a “miscellaneous” block where you can stick the random tasks that come up.
Make a weekly template based on how much time you need for each block, customized to your needs. Organize your to-do lists around each block. For example, you might designate an hour on Tuesdays and Fridays for household adulting—paying bills, scheduling repairs, and the like. If something breaks on Monday, and it’s not urgent, put it on the household to-do list and handle it on Tuesday.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
As much as I’d like to be able to multitask effectively, the fact is that it doesn’t work. It may feel like you’re saving time, but you’re less productive overall when you try to divide your focus between multiple tasks. Plus, when you’re already feeling overwhelmed, having your attention pulled in multiple directions at once can make you feel even more frenzied.
When you’re working, place your phone out of reach and put it on airplane mode if you can. Close extraneous tabs. Turn off email notifications and commit to checking your email less often throughout the day—every hour or two instead of every four minutes.
Give yourself 20 or 30 minutes at a time to focus on one thing and one thing only. Longer is great if you get into a flow state, but don’t forget to take work breaks to move your body, too.
Employ Transition Rituals
One of the more difficult parts of working from home, as so many of us have done for the past year and a half, is the lack of separation between work life and home life. We’re always here. Work bleeds into domestic life and vice versa, and it’s hard to create appropriate divisions of time and space.
Transition rituals give your brain and body time to pause, reorient, and re-energize between tasks. They signal that it’s time to change gears, closing one door before opening another. For example, when my kids leave for school in the morning, I put on proper clothes (no working in pajamas), start the essential oil diffuser on my desk, and put on some light music. That tells my brain that it’s time to work. On mornings where I skip those steps, I feel notably less focused. At the end of the workday, I make a point of closing my laptop and pushing in my desk chair.
Other transition rituals could include making a cup of tea before sitting down to study or doing a quick microworkout before meetings.
Automate Where You Can
It takes only a few minutes to set bills to autopay, set up reminders in your calendar for recurring tasks, or turn on email filters that keep your inbox more organized.
Small business owners and self-employed folks can benefit from low-cost services to help automate payroll, invoicing, and other easy but time-sucking tasks.
Lose the Clutter
When you’re already feeling overwhelmed, a crowded, disorganized home environment only contributes to the stress. Look around. Does your home feel soothing, or does it make you feel anxious in its current state?
If the latter, it’s time to clean, organize, and purge. Start small with one room, even one drawer. Fill one bag with stuff to donate. Keep chipping away. Each little bit of progress should provide some immediate relief. If the problem is big enough and you can afford it, hire a housecleaner or professional organizer to help put things right. Then, do everything you can to keep it that way.
Block, Unfollow, Delete
Sometimes social media provides a welcome escape, but it can also be a breeding ground for social comparison, self-doubt, and FOMO. That’s the last thing you need when you’re already feeling overwhelmed.
Ruthlessly curate your social media and unfollow anyone who makes you feel insecure or unhappy. Hide or block people who drain you emotionally by causing drama on your timeline. Consider deleting apps altogether if you find yourself wasting time you don’t have to spare by scrolling.
Fill Your Bucket
Coping with overwhelm isn’t always about doing less. Sometimes you actually need more—more time with friends, better self-soothing or relaxation practices, more fun. All too often, the things that nurture our souls are the first things we let slide because they feel optional. Preserving your mental wellbeing is not optional. What do you need more of?
What to Do In the Moment When You Feel Overwhelmed
In addition to mitigating sources of stress and anxiety, you should have some tools for self-soothing when that wave of feeling overwhelmed hits. Here are some quick ideas:
What’s the first thing you do when one of your electronic device is on the fritz? You unplug it. Same goes for you. Walk away from the computer, put down your phone, and give yourself permission to turn off for a few minutes. Take a power nap or do one of the things below.
Any kind of slow, controlled breathing will stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. A simple practice is the extended exhale, where you breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. For example, breathe in for a count of four, pause, then exhale for a count of eight. Repeat five times.
Meditation, prayer, and chanting have the same effect of improving vagal tone.
Getting things out of your head and onto paper can be a big help. Sit down and do a brain dump. Let the thoughts flow without censoring them.
Taking a minute to write down a few gratitude statements can help, too.
It may be cliche, but one of the best things you can do when you start feeling overwhelmed is to get out of your head and back into your body. Take a quick walk or do a microworkout.
Mindset Shifts for Dealing with Overwhelm
Here’s the bottom line:
1. Focus on the things you can control about your situation. Address the major root causes of stress when you can. When you can’t, look for ways to alleviate smaller sources of stress and bring more calm and order into your environment.
2. But don’t try to control everything. Ask for help.
3. Let go of perfectionism. Get comfortable with “good enough.”
4. Practice self-compassion. Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes. Don’t make it worse by getting down on yourself for how you’re feeling. Focus on what you need to do to feel better.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.