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What to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

A psychotherapist offers 8 steps for managing in these distressing times.

Key points

  • If you're feeling overwhelmed, you're not alone.
  • Some psychologically-based ideas can help you manage these difficult times and the feelings that go with them.
  • Finding ways to put your concerns into words can help.
  • Separating large worries into smaller ones can also help.

Liz* was pregnant and thrilled. But she got exhausted just thinking about all the things she needed to do before the baby was born. “I’ll never get everything done,” she said. “What kind of mother can’t even get stuff prepared before the baby comes?”

Carlos* had just started the job of his dreams. But instead of being excited, he was filled with dread that he would fail, that he wasn’t good enough for the job, and that he would disappoint everyone who had recommended him for it.

Peter’s* older brother was dying. “I don’t know how to cope with this,” he said. “My brother has always been my rock. Now it’s my turn to take care of him. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it when he’s gone.”

Many of us are feeling overwhelmed these days. Anxieties and lifestyle changes related to COVID, switching from in-person to remote and back to in-person at work and school, coping with the news about events all over the world, and on top of all of that, managing relationships, family, and the realities of daily life—why wouldn’t we be overwhelmed?

Being overwhelmed is a feeling of being “buried or drowned beneath a huge mass or defeated.” We feel like we cannot handle everything we have to deal with. We want to shut down. But when you have responsibilities, shutting down isn’t an option.

Here are some psychologically-based ideas that can help you manage these difficult times and the feelings that go with them. You don’t need to do them all, or to follow them in order. Pick and choose among them and discard anything that doesn’t work for you.

  1. Make a list of the things that are overwhelming you, like tasks you need to accomplish, goals you’ve set for yourself, and things that worry or distress you. Include tasks like doing the laundry and making dinner, as well as goals and aspirations, and world events. Of course, writing everything down can be overwhelming itself, so stop anytime, and come back to the task later. Eventually, you’ll be able to sort through, assess, and prioritize these worries so that you can manage the feelings they stir up.
  2. Write about your worries. A journal can be a useful tool in this effort, but so can an email to a friend or loved one. If you’re writing to someone, let them know at the very beginning of your email that you don’t expect them to solve the problem. You just want them to listen and maybe to help you put your concerns into words.
  3. Talk to someone. A friend, a family member or other loved one, or a professional can all help you find words to express your feelings. Experiencing someone else’s understanding of similar emotions can be a major tool in managing the overwhelming aspects of life today.
  4. We are often overwhelmed by the large picture in front of us. If you can find a way to start with one small step, you may start to feel better and, to your surprise, you might find that you begin to make headway on the larger goals you’ve set for yourself.

    Liz, for example, found that when she started to think about her pregnancy, she was overwhelmed by the enormity of having a child. “How will I know that I’m eating right for her?” was a first thought, followed quickly by “How will I take care of her? How will I give her the emotional care she needs? Where will I send her to school? How will I protect her from getting hurt?” and a whole litany of other worries that took her to her unborn baby’s college graduation and beyond. When she began to look for small steps, she got a book about eating right for pregnancy and started talking to friends about what she should put on her gift list. “I realized that I could only deal with each step as it comes,” she said. “And if I deal with those as well as I possibly can, then that will lay the groundwork for dealing with the next thing when it comes along.”

  5. Go back to the list that you made earlier. Put a number from one to five next to each item, based on how easy it would be to do something about them. Next to everything that you could get done easily, for instance, put the number one, and next to the hardest things, put a five. Decide whether it would be better to get the hardest things out of the way, or to do the easiest ones first, like cleaning up your desk before you start working. You can try both ways and see what works for you.
  6. Self-care is a crucial component of dealing with being overwhelmed. If you make sure that you are eating well, sleeping as well as you can, and paying attention to your feelings, you will be better prepared to cope with the problems that are overwhelming you. Carlos found that when he focused on eating well, exercising and sleeping enough, spending time with friends without drinking or smoking to excess, he felt more competent to deal with his new job. “Feeling good physically made it possible for me to take it one step at a time,” he said. “I realized that they don’t expect me to start running the company. In fact, they’re spending a fair amount of time training me and other new recruits so that we are comfortable with the way the company does run.”
  7. Shutting down, much like a bear’s hibernation in winter, can be a way of riding out a difficult time and waking up when we have more resources to support survival. Although you can’t hibernate, you can limit how much you read and listen to distressing news. And at the same time, try to find some things, however small they might seem, to contribute to the causes you find most important. If you’re worried about the environment, change some of your habits—recycle more and use plastic less, for example. Contribute—even a small amount—to a politically-active group. Talk with friends and family to get other ideas. You probably won’t change the world, but every small contribution can help.
  8. Recognize that there are some things you can do something about, and some things you can’t influence. As a psychotherapist, I have learned that sometimes the best medicine is to distract yourself for a time, so that your psyche can refresh itself. Although Peter could not avoid feeling grief about his brother dying, watching amusing shows or sports on television, alone or with his brother, freed them from the pain for a little while, making it possible for them to go on with the realities of what was happening.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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