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6 Steps to Combat Overwhelm

We’ve all been there before, feeling stuck and drowning under a sea of to dos and pressures. We feel anxious, stressed, irritable, or even hopeless. Our thoughts are scattered, our bodies are uncomfortable, and we’re not able to take effective action. Here are 6 strategies to help combat overwhelm and stay afloat.

Tips for dealing with overwhelm

1. Get everything down on paper

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our minds often race, bouncing back and forth among all of the things we have to do, the pressures we’re under, the obstacles in our way, and the possible things that could go wrong. A great first step to start to organize the mental clutter and devise a plan for getting on top of everything is to get it all down on paper.  

Take a deep breath and take 5-10 minutes and brain dump onto a sheet of paper. Write down all of the demands, expectations, hurdles, or other factors contributing to your sense of overwhelm. 

2. Pare down and prioritize

Now that you have a list of all of the things on your plate, it’s time to pare down and prioritize. Take a first pass through your list and cross off anything that is a “what if.” What if is a worry, a hypothetical problem to be solved in the future. It doesn’t get addressed now. 

Next, ask yourself the following questions and be honest about the answers. Use those responses to help you cross off additional items and prioritize the remaining ones.

  • Are all of these tasks actually on me to do? 
  • Of those, what do I really have to do?
  • And of those remaining, are these tasks actually important
  • Finally, are these important tasks urgent? Must they be done now?

Take steps to reduce your load, which will reduce your stress and anxiety. Revise your much shortened list so that only urgent, important tasks that absolutely must be done by you remain, and rank those tasks according to how critical they are to the big picture. Instead of feeling stressed about this “to do” list let it instead make you feel organized. 

3. Make a plan

Oftentimes, when we feel overwhelmed, we spend a lot of time with our thoughts swirling around all of the things stressing us out…and very little time actually taking action steps toward addressing those things in a lasting way. So, once you’ve pared down and prioritized, it’s time to make a concrete plan including what you will do and when you will do it. 

Schedule tasks into your day, but be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any given day. It’s important for your mental health to also make time for self-care, rest, eating, moving, connecting, working, play, and sleeping – all of the things that a human being needs to be healthy and happy. If you do not prioritize your self-care, you’ll never stop feeling overwhelmed because you won’t have the energy levels to do what you need to.

4. Break it way down

Sometimes we know what needs to be done and can even outline a plan, but the plan itself feels daunting. Maybe it’s wrapped up in an anxiety-provoking situation, we’re not sure about our abilities to do it, or we’re dreading it because it’s hard or boring. Whatever the reason, a helpful strategy is to break any overwhelming plan down into smaller steps. You’ve likely heard that before, so here’s the kicker. Break it down, then break those steps down even smaller. Keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until the next step seems absolutely doable. 

Here’s an example: I have to create a Powerpoint presentation for a speaking event I’m nervous about. I know the general plan is:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Map out the key points
  3. Create slides

But let’s say that still feels overwhelming, and I find myself spinning out or stalling. Instead, I might break it way down and use the helpful phrase: “All I have to do next is…” On a really granular level, this might look like: “All I have to do next is open my laptop.” “All I have to do next is open a document.” “All I have to do next is brainstorm some possible topics. I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes and just write down any possible ideas.” And so on. 

5. Get started right away

Procrastination is a common response when we’re faced with anything we find anxiety-provoking, hard, or boring. You’ll notice, though, that procrastination isn’t actually an effective strategy for reducing overwhelm and stress. While you get to avoid the task in question for a period, the psychological weight of it remains. Studies show this actually increases your stress. You’re not actually relaxed. In fact, you may even be adding guilt or dread or anxiety to the mix. Moreover, as you procrastinate, other things are pilling up, and your initial overwhelm grows. 

Procrastination is a complex habit, but working on your ability to get started quickly is a great way to start to break it. Any number of strategies might help you get started right away. Try these out and see what works for you. Remember, the first step is often the hardest. You just have to get going.

  1. Set a timer for a really small chunk of time. Tell yourself you only have to work until the timer goes off. Sometimes, that makes getting started seem a little easier. Practice some breathing exercises to get in the right headspace. 
  2. Practice “3, 2, 1, Go!” Anytime you find yourself with any urge to avoid or delay a task, practice a quick count down then take a step. Repeatedly doing this will help you build that mental muscle of diving right in, and that’s a really useful skill to master. 
  3. Make a deal with yourself. You can use rewards or consequences to help boost your motivation. Treat yourself to something you enjoy if you get started quickly or enforce a punishment (e.g., do something you don’t enjoy doing, deny yourself something you like, donate to an organization you despise – just any unpleasant, aversive thing that you like less than getting started on a hard task) for procrastinating. 

6. Be a good coach for yourself

When we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, our minds tend to chatter quite loudly. We have thoughts like “I can’t do this!” “It’s too much!” and those thoughts are like mental ankle weights, weighing us down, requiring more time and energy for each step. Instead, it’s important that we make a point of being good coaches for ourselves. 

While we can’t necessarily stop those heavy, stressful thoughts from coming, we can intentionally use self-talk to bolster and support ourselves. Saying things like “You can do this. You always get through it” won’t take the stressors away but will help you feel more capable of handling them. After all, your track record for getting through hard things is 100%. You absolutely CAN do this.

Get a handle on stress for good 

Having an effective plan for managing stress and overwhelm on an ongoing basis is critical. After all, stress is an unavoidable part of life! In honor of Stress Awareness month, we’ve made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community. In addition, through this link only, you can also get our Self-Care [by Design] Mini-Course for only $10. That’s $19 off the regular price! Research shows your approach to stress management and self-care should be effective and personalized. You are unique and your self-care plan needs to be, too. Give yourself the gift of building psychological strength and transforming your life experience

“Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.”
—Tyler Knott Gregson