Katharine Brooks Ed.D.

Career Transitions

Help! I'm Overwhelmed and Stuck

Moving from emotion to logic to action will help.

Posted Sep 03, 2020

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Silly question, right? I don’t know anyone right now who isn’t feeling overwhelmed by their job, their children or family, their seemingly endless to-do lists, the relentless political news, COVID-19, etc. We were busy before the pandemic, but now it seems we’re even busier. Job responsibilities have ratcheted up and we aren’t able to physically connect with people the way we used to in our work settings. Someone said that we’re no longer working at home—we’re living at work.

Even when we can go to our work setting, we still have to wear masks and maintain reasonable distances. Many of the ways we used to relax and get perspective are cut off for now, or changed by the virtual environment. I’ve been immersed in three major writing projects this year, and normally I would enjoy going to my local coffee shop, setting up my computer, and working every Saturday and Sunday morning. Now, I make a pot of tea and sit in my house, where I’ve been sitting since March. Can I do the work? Sure. Is it as much fun? No. I realized recently that I’ve spent too much time lately feeling overwhelmed—and my solution to take a break by watching TV isn’t really helping. There’s a genuine reason for feeling overwhelmed: like you, I have a ton of work to do. But here’s what I have to remember: nothing is going away. Certainly not on its own. I have to take charge because otherwise, it controls me and my happiness. Sound familiar? 

I realized that my irrational thinking was the source of my feeling overwhelmed, so I needed something that would help me move from emotion to logic to action. This post will cover some ideas you can try.

Feeling overwhelmed can be a sign of anxiety. If you find that trying these ideas isn’t helpful, and other attempts you have tried aren’t working either, it might be time to talk to your doctor about medication or self-care activities to calm your anxiety. Practicing self-care, whether that’s meditating, reading a self-help book, pausing to drink a cup of herbal tea, or getting a massage may help you reclaim your strong inner core.

Reaching out to others when you feel overwhelmed and isolated is also a great idea. If you haven’t connected with friends in a while, maybe it’s time to do a happy-hour or start a Zoom group. Here are some additional ideas that have worked for me:

  • One of my “neighbors” on the NextDoor app started posting about how much she enjoys classic movies and a few of us joined the discussion. Now we have a “Zoom Classic Movie Group” that meets every other week. We watch a Turner Classic film and discuss it. It has turned out to be a great way to relax and meet new people.
  • I also never miss a concert by one of my favorite bluegrass groups, the Kruger Brothers. They perform every Friday and Saturday evening on Facebook and YouTube and their music provides a nice way to relax over the weekend. My friends and I text each other throughout and it's almost like sitting next to them at the concerts.
  • Recently I found an online music instruction program where I was able to take inexpensive lessons, meet some fellow musicians, and start playing an instrument I haven’t played in years.

So what works for you? What activities would help you relax and forget about your troubles for a while? Yes, you’re overwhelmed and it seems contrary to ask you to add new things to your already busy life. But you are at risk for burnout if you don’t stop and inject fun in your life. Particularly fun that will connect you with others and support your interests. New online social activities will bring a fresh perspective and new people into your life. Now that pretty much everything is virtual, what groups could you join? Think about a hobby you’d like to start or a hobby you’ve neglected and want to restart. Maybe you need spiritual guidance and would find it interesting to explore different virtual church services.

Once you’ve injected some fun into your life again, another way to help reduce feeling overwhelmed is to use the approach I outline here. It’s simple. Because when you’re feeling overwhelmed, your brain needs “simple.” What you don’t need is a complex system of planning or organizing that will just make you feel even more overwhelmed. I suspect you have heard much of this advice before—but it’s easy to forget when your emotions take over. So let’s move from those negative emotions to more logical thinking and ultimately to action. Here’s how:

Start with the irrational thinking that is causing your emotions. Which ones apply to you?

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: “I must do it all now.”
  2. Catastrophizing: “It’s a disaster.”
  3. Taking too much on: “I have to say yes to whatever I’m told.”
  4. Waiting for inspiration: “I’ll do this when I’m feeling better.”
  5. Failure to prioritize: “I must do everything at once now.”
  6. Focusing on “should’s”: “I shouldn’t be this way. I should be able to handle this.”
  7. Magnifying: “These tasks are impossible. I just can’t do them.”
  8. Avoiding: “It’s just too much. I’m going to sit on the sofa and watch TV.”

Now that you’ve identified your challenges, let your logical brain take over.

  1. Recognize where your mind is working against you. Counter your negative thoughts with kinder, more self-compassionate statements. “It’s a lot to do, but I’ve handled lots of responsibilities before. I can handle this.” Or “I just need to calm down and get organized. I can do this.”
  2. Get out a piece of paper and write down all the “to-dos” that are in your head. Make a list or a mind-map.
  3. Look over your list and identify the big projects. Break them into smaller steps.
  4. Prioritize the projects and the steps. Which projects are most important to you? Which ones are causing the most stress? Would it help to start with them? Do you need to tackle one step each for several projects/problems or would it be better to focus on just one project at a time? Get your logical brain involved and active!
  5. Create a priority list of projects and steps, and then add the one-off activities you also need to do that don’t have a lot of steps.
  6. Look over your list and decide what one step you will start with. Taking action is the best way to fight feelings of being overwhelmed.

I hope this approach helps you as much as it has helped me. We are all learning a lot about ourselves and our strengths through this period of the pandemic. Taking care of yourself is important, and finding a way to balance your responsibilities with fun while making peace with your workload will help you thrive even in a pandemic.

©2020 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved.