Raise your hand if you’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed. Aside from the fact that being in the middle of a pandemic makes everything more stressful, you’ve got work obligations and family commitments, then there are food choices to make, at-home workouts you think you should be doing, and non-stretchy pants you’re feeling bad for not fitting into.
It’s a lot. I get it, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed. That said, staying in a state of overwhelm is a choice.
Yep, you heard me, it’s a choice. And if you’re ready to get out of the seemingly relentless spin cycle of life (and the tight chest and racing mind that come with it), stick around. I’ll be unpacking the real reason you get overwhelmed — spoiler alert, it’s not because your to-do list is too long — plus, four things you can do to change it.
Why Do I Get Overwhelmed?
I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a health coach, I’ll often hear my clients say that they just can’t do it. They can’t swap out their toast and cereal for breakfast. They can’t make time to get outside. They can’t get to bed earlier. They can’t…fill in the blank.
In my opinion, “I can’t” statements reflect limiting beliefs. They aren’t real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and identities we accidentally end up identifying with. It’s not that you can’t, it’s that something is holding you back. I find that most of the time, when I dig a little deeper, that thing is fear.
Types of Fear That Cause Overwhelm:
Fear you won’t be able to handle it
Fear of getting it wrong
Fear you won’t get it done (on time)
Fear that you’ll be judged
Fear of the consequences
Fear of not being in control
Fear of being embarrassed
Fear that you don’t really deserve it
Whether you’re experiencing worry, stress, or complete overwhelm, fear is usually at the helm, just FYI. But the goal here isn’t to be fearless (there actually are some benefits to fear),1 it’s to not let it rule your life.
Anything that threatens your place in this world, i.e. your self-worth, can elicit a fear-based reaction. I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response, right? When you experience something that feels scary and stressful, the amygdala (the part of your brain that handles emotional processing) releases a rush of chemicals into the body.2 The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, preparing you to fight or flee. Not only that, the amygdala instantly shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex which temporarily impairs all rational thinking, making you feel disorganized and out of control.3
So, It’s All in My Mind?
Believe it or not, you’re causing this cascade of physiological effects by your thoughts alone, even though there’s no real danger other than the perceived consequences of what would happen if you failed or were embarrassed or weren’t able to keep tabs on all of your to-dos. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, your life isn’t falling apart — your thoughts are.
So, how do you reel it back in? This Yale studyshowed that it could be as simple as breathing.4 Researchers placed 131 university students into either a non-intervention control group or one of three 30-hour workshops that used wellbeing interventions, including breathing, mindfulness, and emotional awareness to combat stress. Before and after the workshops, the students were put through a stressful task that simulated a high-pressure performance situation.
They found that the group who participated in the breathing workshop were able to stay calm throughout the high-stress task. Plus, their heart rates held steady, they were able to think more clearly, and they actually performed the task more effectively.
4 Ways to Stop Yourself from Spiraling
Without a doubt, overwhelm is one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals, but it is possible to move past it. It’s just your brain trying to keep you safe and with the strategies below, you’ll learn how to recognize the onset of overwhelm and take steps to regain the clarity and calm you need to get whatever it is you need to do, done.
Since being in that state of overwhelm impairs your prefrontal cortex and sends adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your body, the best thing you can do for yourself is to slow down and breathe.5 It doesn’t matter what kind of breathing you do — box breathing, alternating nostril breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing all work. Just make sure that the method you choose is rhythmic, meaning that you breathe in and out for about the same amount of time. After a few minutes you’ll notice that your mind has slowed down and your energy is much calmer.
Try this: Here is a triangular breath exercise that I’ve created for my clients. Inhale through your nose, counting slowly to 6; hold for a count of 2 at the top; and exhale for a count of 8. Repeat for 1-3 minutes or until your mind feels calm again.
Check Your Stories
You know the limiting beliefs and thoughts that prevent you from achieving your goals? These are your stories. And I call them stories because they’re just not true. You may have picked them up from things you heard your parents say growing up or from an experience you went through. Maybe you decided along that you always drop the ball. Or that things always feel too big for you, and who were you to achieve big things anyway?! These narratives become a form of identity that not only reflects who we think we are, but also what we think is possible for us.
Try this: Next time you catch yourself doubting your greatness, turn it on its ear. Instead of saying, “I don’t think I can stick to a new way of eating” try “I am fully capable of doing new things.”
Take the Stairstep Approach
When I work with new clients, they often feel overwhelmed by all the things they think they have to do. There’s cleaning out the cabinets, figuring out which brands are canola-free, learning how to make their own bone broth/kombucha/beet kvass… This is about the time I sneak in my stair-stepping approach. This technique is awesome because it breaks the journey down into smaller steps, which is less intimidating than trying to leap to the end in a single bound.
Try this: On a piece of paper, literally draw a staircase. Identify the bottom step (this is where you are now) and then identify the top step (this is where you want to go). Figure out the very first thing you need to do to get to the next step, then do that thing! The rest of the steps will reveal themselves as you go.
Just because you can do all the things, doesn’t mean you need to. A lot of times we get overwhelmed simply because we put too much on our plates. Just like there’s no gold medal for getting more done, there’s no punishment for doing less. Your worthiness has nothing to do with how much you accomplish or don’t accomplish. That being said, there’s also no shame in delegating out tasks and responsibilities.
Try this: Think about what areas of your life could use some assistance. Can your spouse cook up a healthy dinner tonight? Can your kids help you sort through Primal recipes? Make a list of the tasks you want to dole out and if you need help getting more comfortable with asking for help, read this.
Go From “I Can’t” to “I Got This”
Life can be overwhelming, even when you’re not in the middle of a pandemic. But by paying attention to your triggers, your stories, and your breath, you can restore your ability to think, to listen, and move forward. It does take practice, but eventually you can train yourself to respond rather than react. Follow these four steps and see how it works for you:
Check your Stories
Take the Stairstep Approach
How do you manage overwhelm? What tactics do you use to move through it or avoid it all together?
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.