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How to Deal with Being Overwhelmed

Strategies to address and manage overwhelm.

Key points

  • Overwhelm, or feeling in over your head, can lead to anxiety, unhealthy stress, and even burnout.
  • Taking back control of your day and agenda is key to stepping out of overwhelm.
  • Considering your priorities and commitments, and moving or removing what is not aligned with your current agenda, can help.

Sometimes you feel it coming. Other times it hits you out of the blue. The tightness in your chest. Shortness of breath. Fuzzy brain, like you're trudging through your day with your head in thick white clouds. Inability to focus. Rising panic. Stone cold fear that you won’t ever be able to get through it all.

You’re in overwhelm. That state where there is just too much on your plate. You have no idea how you will ever get it all done. It’s that feeling of being "in over your head" and it can lead to anxiety, unhealthy stress, and even burnout.

When you get to the point when you know that working longer and harder is not the answer, you need a different approach. Here are three steps you can put into immediate action next time you feel the cloud of overwhelm coming on.

1. Stop and Breathe.

The first thing to do is to stop. This may seem counterintuitive when you are so busy trying to get everything done with not enough time to do it all. But to end overwhelm, we first need to step out of the busyness. Otherwise, it becomes a vicious cycle and we end up running around and around in our own unproductiveness and panic. So whatever mechanism you need to use to stop yourself even just for a moment, do it.

Start consciously breathing. In through your nose and out through your nose. As your breathing starts to slow, extend your breath. Bring your breath down deep into your belly. Hold the inhale for a few counts and then slowly release, with a long exhale while counting to 2, 3, 4, 5.

Now you are present. Your nervous system has kicked it down a notch. Your head will be clearing even the slightest amount. You regain the ability to focus.

2. Walk away.

Stand up and move away from the situation that is causing the overwhelm and anxiety. It could be your desk, your kitchen, a meeting, your lounge room. If you can, go outside. If not, find a quiet space. You need to get some distance from the messiness. Walking away, even momentarily, often provides enough of a break to get some perspective. Then come back to your breath.

3. Refocus.

Take a few moments as you return to your space with a clearer mind and calmer nervous system. Write down all the things that are on your to-do list. As you do so, highlight the things that are adding fuel to your feeling of overwhelm.

Now look at the list and make three categories, putting each item on your to-do list into either:

  1. Do Now
  2. Do Later
  3. Decline/Delegate

Time for review:

  • How much is in the Do Now category?
  • Is every one of those items necessary?
  • Is it a manageable number of items in the time available?

For those items that are a definite yes—they must be on the Do Now list—jot down the estimated time it will take you to complete each task, in actual hours. If it’s an ongoing task, count the hours per week.

When you add up the hours for your Do Now list, you can quickly see if you are in the realm of the possible or you’re living in a fictional world where there are more than 24 hours in a day.

Be ruthless with this: What can move onto your Do Later list? What can wait until next week, next month, next year? Even better, what can you completely get rid of?

By taking the time to look at your priorities and time commitments, and by moving or removing as much as you can that is not aligned with your current agenda, you will step out of overwhelm, take care of your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and give more energy to the tasks and projects that really matter.

Less Really Is More

  • Less projects, more outcomes.
  • Less busyness, more productivity.
  • Less overwhelm, more peace.
  • Less saying yes, more boundaries.

Mostly, we are the ones who put the things on our to-do list, in one form or another. Take back control of your day and agenda. And take back your energy while you’re at it.

Remember:

  • Stop and breathe, walk away, refocus.
  • You are in control. You get to choose. And you can start right now.

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