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Overwhelmed? 8 Ways to Overcome It

Photo by Andrea D'Aquino
Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you. ~John De Paola

Do you have so much on your plate that you’re left feeling overwhelmed and stressed out? What can you do to get back to a place of controlling ease and relaxation?

In an age of fast paced lifestyles and heightened commercialism, everywhere we turn is a demand for our attention. On top of the information overload, we are working longer, and taking less time off. The result? More stress and less time to ourselves.

Juggling between work, family and our personal needs, it’s easy to get sucked into the never-ending list of to-dos and end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

This article looks at 8 simple stress management techniques to overcome this sense of overwhelming anxiety in order to live a more relaxed and stress-free lifestyle.

Personal Story: How I Became Overwhelmed

This past year has been a roller coaster of a ride for me, where I was away in India, experiencing pregnancy and pre-term labor, overcoming depression, moving to a new house with a newborn and becoming a full-time mom. I was pretty much offline, and have not actively worked on the demands of this site.

Once, I’d (relatively) adjusted to mommy-hood, and was ready to work again, I was faced with several hundred emails, and a huge list of tasks that needed to get done.

At the sight of so much to do, I dove-in head first, and started tackling the list. Silly me. It didn’t take long for me to become completely overwhelmed. There was simply – too much to do.

On top of the responsibilities of caring for a baby, working strictly from a to-do list without a plan or strategy was a formula for disaster. I was spreading myself too thin.

On the verge of break down, I stopped what I was rushing to get done, and focused on overcoming this feeling of overwhelming anxiety and its associated stress.

6 Ingredients to Overwhelm and Stress

First, let’s look at a few common causes that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

1. Expectation

The number one source for stress and overwhelming anxiety is our expectation on a particular outcome. In trying to satisfy that expectation, we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves, thus causing stress.

When we place strict expectations on ourselves or on a particular outcome, if things do not turn out the way we imagined, we feel a sense of discrepancy between what we want and what is in front of us.

2. Take on Too Much

We have an innate drive triggered by survival instincts to please others and to avoid displeasing. As a result, many of us are not good at saying no. Or sometimes, our well intentions have us committed to more than we can realistically take on.

Observe yourself with awareness next time you want to say ‘no’ to something, but feel a resistance within yourself. It is natural for us to want to win people’s approval, and we don’t want to let others’ down. As a result, we often give in to this tension of unease that we feel, and we sacrifice our time and energy.

Saying yes to many unimportant things (unimportant to us, and does not contribute towards our own wellbeing) leaves us very little time for the important things that actually matter to us – like pursuing our dreams, or spending time with our family.

3. Pressure on Self

There is a voice within our heads that is constantly chattering, and often telling us what we’ve done wrong, or how we are not good enough, or why we need to get everything done in one sitting (else our life will end).

As a result, we place unnecessary (and unreasonable) pressure on ourselves through self-criticism and other negative self-talk.

Sometimes, no matter what we do, or how much we’ve gotten done, there is always something our mental voice will disprove of.

4. Perfectionist

The same mental voice in our head also tells us that things have to be perfect, or else our life will be over. Even if we don’t consciously register this, we feel the resulting anxiety and stress in our body, unsure of its cause.

Sometimes, we mask this need (triggered by the voices in our head) by telling others – almost arrogantly – that we are a “perfectionist”.

A perfectionist is a label, a story that takes a lot of energy to keep up. Often, the need to play the part of one who is a perfectionist leaves us overwhelmed with needing to do everything perfectly.

5. Control

Grasping for control is another source of stress, because many times, we cannot do everything ourselves.

One of the resistances to releasing control is our lack of trust in other people, and trusting that they can do the job as well as us. So we end up doing (or wanting to do) everything ourselves. But at the realization that we don’t have the capacity to do it all, we’ll be hit with an overwhelming sense of this daunting reality.

Often, we’ll be left feeling overwhelmed at the mountain of tasks that needs to be done – on our own.

6. Overachiever

Like ‘perfectionist’, ‘overachiever’ is another label we give ourselves. This one is a socially accepted and impressive label that makes us feel special, even admired.

There is nothing wrong with having a lot of accomplishments under your belt. However, many of us do so for the sake of overachieving, while paying a stressful price.

Having too much on our plate can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

8 Ways to Cure the Overwhelmed and Stressed

1. Step Out

You can’t get away from feeling overwhelmed from a place of overwhelming confusion. You have to step away to be able to view your circumstances from a fresh perspective.

Move to a different room, get up from your desk, sit in a different chair, go out for a walk or go sit in a café. Stepping out from the current situation and changing your physicality will help you gain clarity, and shift you away from the overwhelmed state of mind.

2. “What is Most Important?”

When we are feeling overwhelmed, our mind becomes clouded by the task at hand, and by the thoughts that cause us to feel stressed in the first place. When you step out, ask yourself, what is the most important thing for me? How do I want to feel?

Many times, we get so caught up in the doing, that we forget why we are doing it. Instead of being busy doing and then hoping that it will lead us to what we want, start with asking, “How do I want to feel?” And then focus on feeling that way. Then ask, “What is important to me?” And then focus on doing things that are important to you, instead of lots of unimportant tasks that overwhelm you.

Another technique to figuring out what is important is to start asking the question of why we are doing something and following the answers with another why. Asking ourselves the question of Why, and following each answer with another Why can lead us to the trail of wisdom and self understanding.

For example, “Why am I working so hard at this job? So I can make lots of money. Why do I want to make lots of money? So I can provide for my family. Why do I want to provide for my family? Because I want to make them happy. Why do I want to make them happy? Because I love them and they are the most important people to me, etc. In this example, maybe the discovery is that your family is the most important thing, and perhaps, there is another way to make them happy, like spending time with them and spending less time stressing about work.

3. Journaling

Whenever we are feeling overwhelmed, there is likely a lot going on inside our head. Ideas and thoughts swimming in our minds, cluttering up our mental space. The best thing to do is to dump these thoughts out through writing what’s on your mind.

Grab a pen and a piece of paper, or a notebook, and start jotting down everything that is in your mind. Write without editing, and write out every thought. If you have a bunch of to-dos running in your head, list them out. If you have an idea, brain storm on paper.

I’ve always found it therapeutic to sort out my thoughts and ideas on paper. Many of my articles on this personal development blog first start as bullet points and random scribbles in my journal.

Remember to not worry about keeping things looking neat and perfect. This will limit our freedom to dump whatever we want onto paper, both junk that’s keeping us feeling overwhelmed and helpful creative ideas.

4. Giving Up Control – The Quickest Way to Cure the Overwhelmed

We can try to do everything by ourselves, or we can do just the parts we enjoy and spend the rest of the time doing something important to us.

What I’ve done with this site is to do everything on my own; from designing, to coding, to writing, to editing, to marketing, to answering inquiries, to finding advertising. I do this, because I have a false believe that people can’t be trusted. I felt that I could do it better than anyone I could afford to hire. This is arrogant thinking and very limiting in nature.

It was fine when I started, but the site grew to a point where I could no longer keep up. I became the bottleneck. And when I could no longer keep up, the site suffered. I created not only an insurmountable mountain of work for myself, but also unnecessary stress.

I started allowing other writers to contribute to Think Simple Now and am in the process of removing myself from other areas of the site such as the technical side. And already, I’ve experienced a lighter load on my shoulders and a feeling of being much more relaxed.

5. Asking for Help and Allow Help

You’d be amazed at how many people are willing to help. Often, we are the problem that is disallowing help from happening through our limited thinking. We think they will say no, and so we don’t ask.

Just give it a try. Ask for help, and be prepared to be amazed at the generosity that others are willing to provide.

When my husband was out of town for a week, I asked friends for their help and people willingly came to help me watch Ryan, so I could have some midweek breaks. One friend -who works as a nanny- even agreed at a discount, to sleep over one night and take the middle-of-the-night-shift for Ryan. This made my life much easier and more manageable.

Also through asking, my mother-in-law agreed to come watch the baby twice a week, so I could have focused and uninterrupted creative time. I am so thankful.

People are amazing. Just ask, and be open to receiving what others are willing to provide. You never know what will happen. Just think, what’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. Not a big deal.

6. Creating Boundaries

Time is our most precious commodity. It is the only resource that is un-renewable. So spend it wisely and consciously. Because we have a limited number of hours per week, per day … if you could design your life (and you really can), how would you spend it in an ideal situation?

Start with what is most important to you and how you want to feel? Then figure out what activities will support those feelings and things of importance. How long and how much? How much alone time do you need to re-charge? How much time do you want to spend with the kids, and doing what? How much do you want to engage in creative pursuits? Etc.

Once you’ve decided what’s important and how long you want to spend, create boundaries around important activities and do not budge with any incoming distractions. Do not allow unimportant noise and activities to creep in.

I’ve designed my week such that I spend two days during the week (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) on focused creative time, or work time. I spend the other three days with my son. During this time, if Ryan is awake, I do not work and he has my full attention. We play together, go to mommy groups and meet other babies, read books, cook delicious food and nap.

Then the weekend is family time, where the three of us spend quality time together. During family time, we refuse to meet up with other people or engage in social obligations we don’t wish to participate in. We do what we please. We go out for breakfast, go to the park, sit in the sun, play catch with the dogs, have family cuddle time, watch movies or talk about our dreams.

And everyday, I make sure to do at least one thing for myself by myself. Alone time is important to me. I do this either early in the morning, when Ryan is napping, or late at night. I either take a hot bath with candles, or sitting with a cup of chai tea while reading a few pages of something inspirational, or writing in my notebook.

Because email can be such a time suck, I’ve set boundaries around it such that I check email once a day for 30 minutes, do what’s absolutely necessary, and anything that doesn’t get done during this time will just go in the queue for a future time (if at all).

It’s true that I cannot answer every email that comes in, or get to every chore on my list. But it is ok. I realized that I am not obligated to do anything, and that I am in control. I designed my life and have the freedom to create the rules.

At the end of the day, my alone time, time with my son, time with my husband, and our family time together is most important; everything else is secondary, no exceptions.

7. Shut Out Noise

When we feel overwhelmed, it feels comforting to do something mindless to unwind and relax, like watching TV, reading the news or browsing the Internet. I personally like to watch reality TV shows when I feel this way. What we forget during this time is that the extra information that comes in becomes noise that further clusters our already overwhelmed state of mind.

The best thing we can do for ourselves when we come home feeling overwhelmed is to leave the TV and computer off. Do something that slows our mind down. Consider reading something that expands our consciousness, or close our eyes for 30 minutes in silent meditation. Sit back and listen to some smoothing music, or engage in a creative project that is meaningful to you.

8. Bedtime Ritual

The state in which we go to sleep is the state in which we wake up. Doing things that quiet your mind instead of cluttering it will help you sleep more settled and wake up feeling more refreshed.

One thing I do before bed that’s been incredibly beneficial to me is the ritual of gratitude. I start by asking myself, “What are my favorite parts of the day? What did I enjoy about today?” Then I give appreciation for the things, people and circumstances in my life that make me happy.

My plan is to proceed to body gratitude, where I give thanks for each part of my body. But I’ve never get to body gratitude, because I usually drift into sleep at an earlier step feeling incredibly lucky to be alive and thankful to be in my body. Every morning (or mid night when the baby cries) I wake, with the first thought always being that of appreciation. It’s a beautiful way to start the day.

Parting Words

Treat the feeling of overwhelming anxiety as our friend, for it is an emotional indicator letting us know that we need to slow down, and to readjust our center of focus on something else that makes us feel better.

It is also a reminder that life doesn’t have to feel bad, that we have choices, and that we can design our day and especially our experiences.

And no matter how rough our day was today, or yesterday may have been, every morning is a new beginning, a new chance for you to rewrite the story of your life. How will you tell that story?

* What do you do when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed? Share your thoughts and wisdom with us in the comment section. Or see what others are saying on facebook.

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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38 thoughts on Overwhelmed? 8 Ways to Overcome It

  1. I think the biggest thing I need to focus on is my bed time ritual. I could also stand to prioritize things I guess. The idea is perpetual progress though.

  2. I can’t even begin to tell you what a big help this article has been to me today. Lately I’ve been just going around in circles and not really accomplishing much–for just the same reasons. It’s good to get a reminder every now and then to just take a step back and re-focus. I’m really glad I happened to see this post today.

  3. Yes! I can definitely see myself in the over-achiever and too many expectations lists. I think there’s something to be said about Type A personalities too. Even though I like to think I relax and unwind, I’m still thinking about my todo’s and want-to-do’s more than I should be.

    You’ve shared some awesome information with us Tina. Journaling is one thing I want to incorporate more into my daily routine. :)

  4. This is such a perfectly timed article, I can’t even tell you! I have been describing my particular overwhelm as being “off balance”, trying to find the time and space for all the aspects of my life. Thank you so much for not only making me feel less nutty! :), but for giving some awesome advice on how to rearrange things so they are more in line with what I truly want. Take care!!

  5. Lately I’ve been pretty overwhelmed too so this is the perfect post for me right now. I really appreciate you not only sharing your experience (I could relate!), but also providing tips for overcoming that overwhelming feeling. Thanks, Tina!

  6. Hi Tina, So good to be reading you again. What helps when I am overwhelmed is to simply step out,to change the scene. I take a walk, do Yoga, meditate. Its helps my mind keep quiet and almost naturally what is most important to be done, becomes evident. I think when we silence the chatter, the worry, what is truly important, what is freeflowing and comes from our being just steps forward. Everything else falls away.

  7. Thanks for this Tina!

    You’ve hit on some really helpful points here. I can’t even begin to tell you how much journalling has helped me. I always write down my thoughts before I go to bed….it really calms my mind and allows it(me) to know I’m listening.

    I can actually fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow…my wife still wants to know my secret and keep telling her it all has to do with writing before you sleep.

  8. Really enjoyed this article. It’s so easy to allow ourselves to get overwhelmed, but that’s just it…we ALLOW it! Thanks for reminding us how to recenter and regain control of our lives and happiness.


  9. I know a lot of people which take on too much. I definitely have a lot of stress in my life as well. I don’t think I can do journalling. I’ve tried before with little success, but maybe I’ll try some of your other suggestions :)

  10. The most effective thing for me to do when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed is to do some Chi Gung, or Tai Chi. The Chi Gung may be a moving form, or it may be sitting meditation where I move only internal energy and explore the various centres in the body, or it could be breathe work (or all three).

    Your body gratitude exercise is a good thing to do. In certain branches of Chi Gung one of the basic practices is a technique called the “inner Smile;” smiling within yourself, to all of your organs and structures, bringing the radiant energy of a smile to your whole being. It’s a wonderful way to set yourself up for a day or for a good night’s sleep.

    So many simple things are so powerful. good posture is another simple thing we can easily do. It is often remarkable how different we can feel when we consciously straighten our spine, and breathe, and smile to ourselves.

    Smiles to you,

  11. @John… very interesting. I was just starting to explore Tai Chi to help me with my stressful situation

  12. Brilliant tips here Tina, thank you. It’s so important that people recognise when they’re starting to get overwhelmed and act on that fast so it doesn’t get worse. With time you can be proactive and learn how to prevent it. Time alone is key for me but with 3 kids, a husband and busy business that’s hard to fit in. The only way I can do it is to get up early before everyone else and have my own time walking or excercising to a DVD if it’s rainy. That’s my time and I look forward to it. It keeps my mind and body healthy:)

  13. Hi Dermitage,

    If you learn Chi Gung either before or while you learn Tai Chi, you will learn how to become aware of, build, and move your internal energy. Your Tai Chi then will be proper and infinitely more powerful as a result. I could never say enough about how profoundly it can change lives. Good luck with your practice


  14. Leah

    I love the way you approach your weekends. Too many families over schedule their weekends (and kid’s time) and this is really a great reminder. :)

  15. MindOfMine

    This article is very strong and inspiring! Thank you for your advise, these steps are really helping people to pick up their lives when they are indeed overwhelmed.
    What I am asking myself though, when I read this article, is if you also have time planned with friends. When I read this, it looks like you spend time with yourself, baby and husband and the other mommies you see around.
    I also understand that it must feel great to have the opportunity to spend your time the way you want, when you don’t have an out of home job.
    I know that everyone can (at least in theory) create such a situation for themselves, but I don’t want to narrow my life to spending most of the time in one place with just two people I find most important.
    I live a very happy life with my boyfriend and a bunch of lovely friends and family and I have a rewarding job with helping people and I absolutely don’t want to miss that.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think I understand the meaning of your article and know that everybody has different goals, but I think you have to realize that it sounds a bit easy for someone like you who has so much room for adjustment and time-management at the moment to not feel overwhelmed. I just wanted to say this to you to make you aware of how your story can look from another point of view. Nevertheless, thank you very much for your contribution, which is helpful!

  16. I have been overwhelmed with girls, school and desire to become a bestselling author. But after reading your post, i think i just need to relax and allow things to happen. Just don’t over analyze anything and be in the moment. Yeah! Thats the way i have to go. Great Post.

  17. This article is a great resource. I sometimes forget to step back and breathe, particularly when I’m in the middle of a new project. I find it’s helpful to remind myself to take baby steps – any action on a project can be good – even if it’s small. It’s still moving me down the path toward what I want. And if everything doesn’t get done right at this moment, the world still keeps spinning!

  18. Hi Tina. What stands out most for me in this article is that you talked about asking for help. For me, a perfectionist workaholic and overachiever, this has been a struggle. For years I just would wear a smile no matter how overwhelmed I was. I pretended to be superwoman. Bad decision!

    Asking for help is still not easy for me, but I’ve learned to do it anyway. I’ve learned that I am not superwoman and there are consequences for wearing that mask.

  19. Nice post! A little long, but very positive. :) I agree the best way to move out from an overwhelmed state is to let go of the control involved. Most things can be done by someone else. :)

  20. i think one of the reasons why we pressure ourselves to do more is because of the outside stressors we also encounter. i think we just naturally react to the things around us. i used to have a job that is very demanding. as much as i would love to pace myself with the tasks so as i won’t get overwhelmed, it is something beyond my control since we have to meet deadlines. sure it is all about allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed. but i think the reason why it’s hard to slow down is because it will eventually end up our fault again if we were not able to accomplish what we were supposed to do. and back to square 1, we get stressed and overwhelmed.

  21. Very guilty of #5 control. Because I think teaching or turning over a project to someone will take time and being not so sure that she will be able to do it right, I always end up doing everything. At the end day, I realized that I did everything that’s why I’m so stressed or tired. Learning to let go and trusting that your team mate can do it is really important. Thanks for this!

  22. I so can relate with this post! I have been completely overwhelmed lately. Control is a BIG problem for me! I just wrote a post that correlates with this as well-

  23. Thanks for the inspiring post Tina. I’ve struggled with the feeling of being overwhelmed for a long time. Thus I really found your 8 ways on how to overcome it insightful and wise. I shall incorporate them into how I cope with stress.

    As for how I deal with being overwhelmed and stressed, I usually step back and try to find ways to inspire myself. Whether it is through a good book, movie or game, I draw upon its themes and feelings and increase my capacity to handle stress. It also serves to recharge me.

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