Remember how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. You are not where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be. ~Rick Warren
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that it felt like a ball and chain locked to your ankle, keeping you down? I know I have.
If you’re imprisoned by overwhelm, it can kill your productivity and steal your happiness. Feeling panicked and stressed affects not only your mental health but your physical health as well.
Here are seven ways I have found that really work to unlock your ball and chain.
1. Take a Breath
You have time to take one deep breath. Try it right now.
Feeling overwhelmed can lead to feeling panicked. When you feel panicked, your brain sends signals to your body saying:
Take quick, shallow breaths! We’ve got to be ready for fight or flight, because there might be danger right around the corner!
This creates a feedback loop:
Your brain checks in with your body and asks, How are we doing, body?
Your body replies, We’re taking quick shallow breaths right now, brain.
Your brain thinks, Oh no! We must be panicking. There must be danger right around the corner! Keep it up with those quick, shallow breaths.
When you take one deep breath, it’s enough to interrupt the feedback loop:
The next time your brain checks in with your body and asks, How are we doing, body?
Your body will reply, We’re taking a slow, deep breath.
And your brain will think, All is well.
If your overwhelm is caused by physical danger that could harm you at this very moment, run. Otherwise, take a deep breath. It will help your body and your brain realize that there’s no need to panic.
2. Write Down Your “Overwhelm List”
Write down everything that’s making you feel overwhelmed. When you’re overwhelmed, you think, “I have so many things to do, it’s impossible!”
Once you write down the list of everything that’s overwhelming you, you’ll see, “I have exactly 26 things to do!”
Presented with a problem to solve, your brain will switch from panic mode to problem-solving mode. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you’ll begin to come up with creative ways to get out of overwhelm.
And if you make a list but you still feel worried that you’re forgetting to put something on the list, try this trick:
As soon as you’ve listed everything you can think of, set a three-minute timer. Think about everything that’s overwhelming you for three minutes.
If you think of something new to add to the list, reset the timer and try again.
If you can’t think of anything new to add to the list in three full minutes, the list is complete! You definitely haven’t forgotten anything.
3. “What’s the next step?”
For each project or responsibility that’s overwhelming you, ask yourself, “What’s the next step?”
Vague obligations like “I need to find some way to pay off this debt” can feel completely overwhelming.
But if you ask yourself, “What’s the next step?” the answer might be something like, “This weekend when we get together, ask Mike to tell me how he paid off his debt.”
A clear next step will feel doable instead of overwhelming, and if the big picture still feels daunting, remind yourself, “I can only do one step at a time, and this is the next step.”
4. Be Witnessed
Sometimes you just need to feel seen and heard.
You’re doing your best, and things are hard. You’re not a superhero. You can’t handle it all, and that’s okay.
You are a human being, with human limitations, and you are enough, just as you are right now.
If you have a friend or partner you trust, ask to be witnessed. Say, “I’d like to get something off my chest, and I don’t need any help or advice, I just need you to listen. Okay?”
And if they say yes, open up. Tell them how overwhelmed you feel, and don’t shy away from talking about how hard it is.
If you have a spiritual practice, you can ask for this witnessing directly from the Source.
And if you don’t have a spiritual practice and you don’t feel safe to open up to a friend, re-read the beginning of this section. Let it sink in, and know that you are heard, you are witnessed, and that you are enough, just as you are in this moment.
5. Postpone or Cancel Anything You Can
When we feel overwhelmed, we feel that we have more than we can handle and that we absolutely must get it all done right now.
Question those two assumptions. Ask yourself:
What would happen if I didn’t do this?
What would happen if I didn’t do this right now?
If your initial answer is “The world will fall apart,” take a deep breath and ask again.
There may be some responsibilities that you absolutely cannot cancel, and there may even be some that absolutely cannot be postponed.
But you’re no good to anyone when you’re frantic with overwhelm. It’s much better to get a small number of things done in a reasonable time frame, where you can do your best, than to try to get everything finished and end up doing a half-assed job because you were hurried and stressed.
Say no. Cancel. Postpone.
Clear your plate of all your responsibilities that aren’t critical and urgent, and you’ll have the spaciousness to get out of overwhelm. You’ll be able to do a good job at the tasks left on your plate, and you’ll be able to enjoy the journey!
6. Slow Down
Hurrying won’t actually get things done faster; in fact, it will get things done slower and will keep you feeling overwhelmed.
Take driving, for instance. If you drive 60 miles per hour on a five-mile drive, you’ll get there in five minutes. If you hurry and drive 65 miles per hour, you’ll get there in four minutes and 37 seconds.
All that hurrying, on average, saves you 23 seconds, and it makes you far more likely to have an accident.
The same is true of everything you’re feeling overwhelmed by.
If you hurry and get it done slightly faster, you’ll save a tiny fraction of time, and it makes you far more likely to make a mistake. If you make a mistake, you’ll have to do it all over again, which takes much more time than simply slowing down and doing it right the first time.
Also, slowing down helps keep your brain out of fight-or-flight mode, which keeps you out of overwhelm.
7. Take on an Additional Project
“Wait,” you’re thinking. “I’m feeling overwhelmed and you want me to take on something more?!”
Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but your overwhelm might actually be underwhelm; you feel overwhelmed not because you have too many things to do, but because you have too many things to do that you don’t really care about.
In other words, what feels like overwhelm (too much to do) might really be underwhelm (not enough to do that matters).
How would it feel to take on an additional project — one that you’re truly passionate about?
If that idea lights you up, your overwhelm is likely underwhelm. Take it on! And use the other ideas in this list to clear enough space for your passion to shine.
How could you apply one of these seven ideas to feel less overwhelmed today?