10 Ways To Overcome ‘Overwhelm’

Posted on January 26, 2012 by


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.” ;- D

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 Other people put their foot on the brakes, and become withdrawn or depressed.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 Do you go manic, get quiet and withdrawn, become paralyzed or some other response?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.

In the first article of this series, I outlined 10 indicators that you might be headed for overwhelm because you are taking too much responsibility, or taking responsibility for things that you can’t control. In the third article, I talk about empathy without becoming overwhelmed. In the fourth article, I explore the phrase “Hurts more, bothers you less.”

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. (Read on for the 10 tips to overcome overwhelm)

  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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