5 tips for overcoming overwhelm

Categories: Hacking Life, The Juggle, Working? Living?


There’s stress — boy, howdy, is there ever stress right now — and then there’s overwhelm.

Right now, I have both, and one is feeding the other. When I’m overwhelmed, I get really withdrawn (if you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll understand that it’s a strange thing to be around a very quiet Lylah). Sometimes, I seem angry, but I’m not, I’m just really frustrated. And my to-do list seems to grow by the second, because I can’t seem to get anything done. Which, of course, adds to the frustration, and to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

So, how to you break the cycle?

Here are five things I try to do to overcome that feeling of being overwhelmed:

1.) Put it in perspective. Yes, times are tough. In fact, they’re pretty horrible. But where do you stand, in the grand scheme of things? Take a hard look at what’s going on around you. Look for the bright side — there always is one, somewhere — and hold on to it like a lifeline. One excellent way to put things in perspective: Cuddle your kids. Even if they’re too big to be cuddled (some of mine are), grab them, give them an embarrassing hug, shrug off the “Moooooom!” and then take a few minutes to remember what they were like when they were tiny and still thought that you were a superhero. Those little faces… that’s what’s important.

2.) Take baby steps. When I get overwhelmed, I get paralyzed by the huge amount of whatever work needs to be done, and the fact that nothing’s actually getting done. Pick one thing — one small thing — and do it. Then another. Divide your day into hours, and if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, get through the day in five-minute chunks. The time will pass whether you’re constructive or not… might as well be constructive.

3.) Be gentle with yourself. Being angry with yourself doesn’t make things better, and there’s no need to add guilt to the mix. Cut yourself some slack, take a short break, give yourself a treat. After I write this, I’m going to do all three — shut my computer for the night (slack), take a long soak in the tub (break), while sipping on a little scotch (treat). Then I’m going to go to bed.

4.) Go to bed. Yes, really, I’m going to go to bed. If my head hits the pillow before midnight, I consider that early; before 11 p.m. is decadent. When I’m really and truly overwhelmed, I’ll aim for 10 p.m. I’ve never actually gotten to bed that early (at least, not since I had kids), but just the thought of it makes me all giddy. Giddy is good for battling overwhelm.

5.) Look to the past. Have you been in this situation before? Has anyone you know been in it? It took me a while, but then I remembered what my own parents went through, back in the early ’80s, when we were in the middle of a really bad recession and they were struggling with entrepreneurship and day jobs and tuition for three kids. How did they handle it? I’ll have to ask them, but the bottom line is that they got through it. Which means that now, 25 years later, I will, too.

Have you been feeling overwhelmed? What helps you cope?

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8 comments so far...

  • very nice Lylah. thank you.

    vera babayeva  |  March 26th, 2009 at 3:28 pm

  • Aw, anytime you need a shoulder or a venting place, I will be here for you. I have pretty good shoulders. Great advice.

    Also, take a deep breath, count to ten, then slowly breathe out counting to twenty.

    Think of things you like to do: me, it’s being near water, or the countryside.

    Hug yourself…;)

    Gia Saulnier  |  March 27th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  • Being overwhelmed is a habit for some people, In fact it’s their personality!

    Whenever I start to feel that I’m being overwhelmed over an issue, I have a tendacy to become angry and withdrawn. When I realize that I don’t have any control over it….. I step back, I take another look at the situation, and take a few deep breaths. When this is all done, patience sinks in and I have recovered until the next issue arises. But isn’t this life?

    Barb  |  March 28th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

  • A couple things I’ve discovered along the way make a surprisingly big difference in my attitude.

    First, I acknowledge to myself that not only am I human, but so is everyone I deal with. If I can’t get something done using my best efforts, nobody else can either, so why should I feel guilty? I just prioritize, do my best, and communicate, and that’s just got to be good enough.

    Second, I remind myself that everything, yes, everything that I do / try to do / want to do is my own choice. I could always choose to call in and quit. I could choose to let the kids feed themselves dry cereal and water all day. I could even choose to get in my car and leave all my troubles behind - other than my most immediate physical needs. Just remembering that the choice is mine makes me much more positive about my choices, and also better able to objectively prioritize. Chances are, there are some things that could wait a month, even though in my mind I feel compelled to do them today because of what someone else will think. It’s my choice and I don’t have to care what anyone else thinks if my kids are still wearing what they put on yesterday morning.

    SKL  |  March 30th, 2009 at 11:37 am

  • i liked the hug part…but with a difference. I’m soooo overwhelmed right now. My job is great but there’s just too much to do (not to do with layoffs - business is actually up). So I work late. And I sometimes don’t mind because I usually return home to gross expressions or tantrums about dinner (and lunch and just about everything else - from both offspring and spouse). The offspring has turned into a nasty brat (the spouse is spoiling him rotten and could do with some psych help himself.) My parents’ marriage is falling apart and my father has turned into a nasty creature. I was *this* close to jumping off our 7th floor balcony a week back. I thought of my mom and didn’t do it. Note…my mom, not my son. Probably coz my son was the one causing the urge to jump! I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in 7 years and my husband doesn’t believe in any form of punishment (unless he’s doling it out himself - then it doesn’t matter) and I’m not allowed to get stern and yell at the child to s.l.e.e.p. He can stay awake until 2 am after havening gotten up at 7 am the previous morning! I’ve put on 10 pounds in the past 4 months… aaaaaaaaaaargggghhhhh….makes it difficult sometimes to hug him to overcome overwhelm. maybe i’ll just go hug my mom instead and say thank you.

    A Lost Writer  |  March 31st, 2009 at 10:52 am

  • If the question is “Have you ever felt Overwhelmed?” the answer would have to be YES!!!! I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been? I am a working mom with 2 small children (ages 3 and 5) and i battle with being overwhelmed on a daily basis. Between getting up early and working all day and then keeping the house clean and laundry washed and then the homework and the packing lunches and OMG i could go on and on and on…… Unfortunately i haven’t found the answer yet on how to manage it all without the stress. I just keep going and going I feel like it’s time for a change but I’m lost at what that could be. I can’t not work and I can’t not take care of the kids so what are the other options?

    RDawn  |  October 1st, 2009 at 8:18 pm

  • Great article Lylah. I especially like your comment about getting to bed. Rest is amazingly important and many people do not take that into account. If you are interested, I’d love for you to share your thoughts on eliminating overwhelm in my post http://www.productiveandorganized.net/2010/12/106-thoughts-on-overcoming-overwhelm-in-a-freaked-out-world.html I know my readers would love what you have to share!
    To your success

    Stephanie LH Calahan (@StephCalahan)  |  December 10th, 2010 at 9:43 pm

  • Hello from Montana,

    Great post and suggestions. The job of being a mom is big enough, but when you throw in the other roles, it is amazing.

    Good luck, you are doing the most important work in the world.

    Judy H. Wright, author and speaker

    Judy H. Wright-Bounce Back Person  |  September 2nd, 2011 at 12:17 am