10 Ways To Overcome Overwhelm

October 11th, 2011

Are you a lippy driver, specializing in drive-by insults and graphic hand gestures? “Forget world peace buddy- visualize using your turn signal. Hey, if you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk…….. “ and similar pleasantries. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they drive. Maybe more to the point, you can tell a lot about yourself by the way you REACT to the way other people drive. As George Carlin said, “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster is a maniac.”

That IS annoying though, isn’t it? THOSE people who don’t signal a turn! The guy that hasn’t turned his turn signal off since 1975 is just as annoying. Or maybe you’re more of a passive-aggressive driver, big on tailgating. I have to confess that I can get annoyed driving behind slow drivers, and of course this has NOTHING to do with my own time management.

We all have our default responses when under pressure, or overwhelmed. Using the car analogy, you can see the different ways that people respond to pressure.

  1. Some people put their foot on the gas, and become angry or agitated. When under stress, some people try to do more, and get more frantic. When these people get overwhelmed, it’s best to get out of the way. It can be explosive like road rage.
  2. Other people put their foot on the brakes, and become withdrawn or depressed. When these people get overwhelmed, they will often have deflated energy. They might have trouble asserting themselves like a driver who lets EVERYONE merge before moving forward.
  3. Others put their foot on both the gas and brakes at the same time, alternating between manic activity and crashing and burning, frozen under the strain of it all. This can feel particularly out of control, like a car skidding on ice.

What is your default response to stress? Do you go manic, get quiet and withdrawn, become paralyzed or some other response? We all have our defense mechanisms when life gets overwhelming. All the different responses have something in common. Control! We want to feel like we’re in control, whether it’s by staying busy or staying invisible. We might even use control to avoid feeling the feelings. Then the feelings go underground and come out in ways that confuse us and everyone around us.

There is a world of difference between responsibility and control. You can take responsibility for what you can do about what you see that needs to be done. You can’t control the outcomes. You can’t control other people. You can’t always control the timing. You can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. Taking responsibility is empowering. Trying to control outcomes leads to frustration.

As with driving, the best way to take responsibility in a crisis is to move with the skid and slowly change your course. Be kind to yourself, give yourself time to heal and gently get yourself back on an even keel. It starts with awareness of how you respond to different situations, so that you can live as mindfully as possible.

Here are 10 practical ways to ground yourself when you feel overwhelmed. None of them involve guilt or obligation. They relate to both personal stress and being overwhelmed by problems in the world. Some might be more or less relevant for you, depending on your personality and default responses to stress.

  1. Perspective

When you’re overwhelmed, you often can’t see the wood for the trees. The details are overwhelming the bigger picture. It’s the big picture that gives you focus. You may need to step back from what is overwhelming you, like standing back from an abstract painting or a 3D image, so that you can regain your perspective. Offer yourself the gift of time and space.

  1. Learn to ask for, and accept, help

Another factor behind overwhelm is feeling that you can’t do it all alone. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Let others support you. You would do the same for them in an instant, and may even get that chance. Friends, therapists and in this new world of social media, even acquaintances can remind you that you aren’t alone.

  1. Befriend the word “no”.

Give yourself permission to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed. Say “no” without any guilt or shame. It’s a beautiful gift- for you, for the other person, for the relationship and for the world. It gives everyone the opportunity to claim their piece of responsibility. A well timed “no” protects a deeper “yes” to who you are, and allows you to pace yourself and hold overwhelm at bay. (Click here for a longer piece on saying “no”)

  1. Breathe

For me, the beach is a place where I can recharge my batteries when life seems overwhelming. It’s ironic that there is a sign at our local beach that says “No refueling on the beach.” That’s exactly why I go there, to refuel, to breathe, to clear my head and to regain focus. Be proactive. Just as an apple a day keeps the doctor away, so intentional breathe and regular relaxation keeps overwhelm away.

  1. Sleep/ Stimulation

A few years back I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, which was my body’s way of telling me it was overwhelmed. Among the various things I did to remedy this situation, changing my night time habits was the most significant. I didn’t watch television or use my computer after dark and I kept the house as dark as I could while I slept. The lack of night time stimulation had enormous benefits. For introverts, this is particularly important when it comes to being overwhelmed.

6. Let go of control

It can be very liberating to surrender. You don’t have to do it all alone and you don’t have to do it all now. When it comes to being overwhelmed, letting go is like a giant sigh. Breathe out overwhelm and breathe in peace and calm.

  1. Prioritize

Break tasks or problems down into chunks, and focus only on the most important ones. Overwhelm tends to trick you into thinking it ALL has to be done NOW. Don’t fall for it. Take charge of the to-do list and set your own schedule. (Click here for a helpful piece on productivity)

  1. Take action, create momentum

It’s amazing how empowering it is to take action, even one small action. Lao Tzu said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When you feel overwhelmed, take one bold and decisive step even just in one area of your life, and enjoy the feeling of forward momentum. You are creating a habit of action. Overwhelm is powerless in the face of bold and decisive action.

  1. Give yourself credit for progress

Overwhelm is a vicious cycle. You beat yourself up for not reaching your goals and this makes you even more overwhelmed. Give yourself credit for the progress you HAVE made. Be kind and encouraging to yourself. Think of times you were overwhelmed in the past and you overcame the feeling step by step. You can do it again. You’re even stronger now than you were last time you overcame overwhelm.

  1. Focus only on the present moment

Last, but most importantly, remind yourself that the only thing you HAVE to handle is this very moment. Ask yourself the question, “In this moment, am I okay?” In this moment, you ARE okay, and in this moment the world is spinning at exactly the pace it needs to spin. In this moment, you can choose one response that will be your act of defiance against the oppression of being overwhelmed.

Every moment is a new opportunity to begin again, and overwhelm has nothing that can match that power.

Author, Joan Borysenko, said,

We humans are born artists, and when burnout wipes the canvas clean, it is an invitation to pick through the ashes and make life new again.

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  1. Joanna says:

    Thank you – this is perfect for me today!

  2. Matt says:

    Good blog sir!

  3. Margaret says:

    Thank you  Wise and profound and readable- all perfectly matched

  4. shereen says:

    Thank you Ian for such amazing article,,,I already started doing major changes but things are not working the way I want,, some small little things come a long the way which doesn’t let things go straightforward as I want them to…

  5. ian says:

    hi Shereen, stay with it. You can do it. You are strong and adaptable.

  6. Patrick says:

    Needed this article this morning.  Bookmarked to comeback to for reinforcement when starting to feel a bit overwhelmed.  Thanks!

  7. Marie says:

    this had been very helpful, thank you.

  8. I am captivated by the idea of resetting our default positions to stress and more. I agree that we have to know the default in order to change it. Love the underlying neuroscience here. Good work. 

  9. ian says:

    thanks Steve, and thanks for building smarter relationships

  10. Natalie thomas says:

    great timing of article! ive been feeling slighty overwhelmed recently….this article has encourage to slow down and enjoy the present. thank you.

  11. Tammy says:

    Great timing for me also.  Thank you.

  12. benadi brahim says:

    nice work on agood blog

  13. Heidi says:

    Eighteen months ago, I escaped an abusive spouse with my child. The ensuing months have been arduous, to put it mildly. I’ve dealt with everything from financial ruin, to fearing for safety, to single-parent issues, to even discovering that my child had a form of high-functioning autism, and at the end of 2011, was met with a scare that I might have cancer. I had horrible abdominal pain. In the past six weeks, I’ve been through several expensive medical procedures, and so far, NOTHING has been found to be wrong with me physically. I really believe my body has been crashing from the stress. This blog entry is incredibly helpful, because primarily I can see the importance of focusing on the big picture. Even though in the short term, things have been hard since my escape, the big picture is that I’m breaking a cycle of abuse and creating a very bright future for myself and for my child. This knowledge carries me through. In the meantime, I’m going to make a concerted effort to put these things in practice that you outline and also lean more heavily on my support community. I know brighter days are ahead. Thanks for the post.

  14. ian says:

    Wow Heidi, what an ordeal. Most of what I took from your comment is that you are an INSPIRATION for being courageous, resourceful and maintaining optimism. Your comment and example are much appreciated. Stay strong.

  15. Great tips. I’m partial to #4 – Breathe – the beach is also where I refuel. blessings, Teresa

  16. Well said! Thank you for a great post, easy to understand and to the point.

  17. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    It’s odd that you should print this, because it’s just what I need to the realisation that I’m so tired, I haven’t slept for a number of years, only minutes at a time. It doesn’t bother me really, I can lie and think all night, or listen to the radio till morning.
    I do work hard though, I push myself, but I must admit that I enjoy everything I do. But I am tired.
    Thank you for this, I am going to try and be kinder to my body from now on.

  18. Anjana says:

    Thank you – this is excellent! Love it

  19. bertie says:

    Nice article – echoes of many very disturbing things – in particular your last comment –
      ” We humans are born artists, and when burnout wipes the canvas clean, it is an invitation to pick through the ashes and make life new again.”  Unfortunatly that was one of the tennets of the mental health system – to do that involved the use of heavy drugs, electroshock and more.
     The stated idea – wipe out the personality so it can be rebuilt afresh. Mainly because it was far cheaper than any kind of cognitive therapy.
    However as in your quote – there is a good deal of sense.
    Over the years ive had some major incidents – smashing a leg gave me the time to seriously study and   FEEL my life for the first time – i knew what i wanted.  it was definatly not what others wanted but it served me well.  The second was a brain haemorhage following a road accident – it took over a year before i could even think of working again – but it cleared the path for me. 

    But at the end of the day its all about honesty, being totally honest with yourself and then coming up with a solution.
    Thanks for a splendid piece.

  20. Jenny says:

    Ian, this post is so helpful to me at the exact moment that I needed it.  You have helped me to break out of those pesky negative loops in my mind whenever I feel stressed.  It’s a gift, (a miracle, really!) to have found you and Meg and I am truly thankful.  As I go forward with my struggling small business and the lifestyle of homeschooling, I’m learning that we make progress because of positive reinforcement.  It’s a complete inner transformation.  When you wrote “the only thing you have to handle is this very moment” I connected immediately.  That kind of thinking also helped me to quit smoking.  When my chantix coach sent me an email that said “the only thing you have to do today is not smoke” I was able to begin my new healthy life.  The only thing we need to handle is this very moment…and the moment keeps passing into new moments so fast that we often don’t have to “handle” much of anything; mostly these moments are something to experience without having to put an expectation on a situation or control events.  

  21. […] It can feel like a knot in the stomach. Whatever its form, having your energy depleted and being on overwhelm-mode takes its toll if we don’t strive to set an energy field. A massage therapist friend of mine […]

  22. Julia R says:

    Thank you! These truly are words of wisdom! As a mom and caregiver to two special needs kids and as a mentor and advocate to many others on the same journey. This is one of those articles that does more than just offer hope for an overwhelmed life, but guidance and direction as to actions we can take! Caregivers in this unpredictable world of Autism, where burn-out through an overwhelmed state is all to common. It is wonderful to have touch stones, reminders of choices that we can make and a little control we can own.. . like our own perspective, acceptance and approach! LOVE this article so much!! Thank you =)

  23. Lexi says:

    Words cannot describe the profound effect reading this article has on me. Today was a day of anxiety and uncertainty and wishing things were different with the situation that is causing me great sadness with every passing hour. Reading this article has somehow calmed me down and given me a sense of inner peace. At times, I can forget that I should think and be this way…but as life takes control we forget your valuable words of wisdom. Relinquishing control or the idea of it starts with these basic steps. Thank you so much for writing this, I will reference this in the future when things seem difficult.

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