Tips for When You're Feeling Overwhelmed, Anxiety or Stressed Out
I originally shared the following advice for when you're feeling overwhelmed with.... well, life or anything in my newsletter, but I realised it could do with a home of its own on the Internet so here it is. I'd be lying if I said I didn't write it for myself because I did. I have been experiencing varying levels of overwhelm this year (for obvious reasons!) and it's the kind of overwhelm that brings with it a lot of stress and other negative emotions. I know that most of the time, even if I can't stop myself from feeling overwhelmed, I can help myself manage the negative emotions, feelings, thoughts and sensations that it brings.
For me overwhelm often shows up as something sort of tries to "solve" itself by feeding myself a very negative and all-consuming narrative: I'm too busy to do X, Y, Z... I don't have time to calm down... I am in this mess because I didn't do A, B, C... and so on. Very quickly, the stress and anxiety I feel from overwhelm becomes greater than any stress I was feeling about the cause of overwhelm (be it too much to do at work, at home, or just simply feeling overwhelmed by lots of negative things happening in the world around me). It gets very hard to do what I need to do to calm down so that I can then actually tackle or process things I need to work through in order to manage the source of overwhelm.
The point is, it doesn't matter what the cause of you feeling overwhelmed is; in our day and age, it's human to feel overwhelmed. The most important thing you need to remember is that while overwhelm can flag up some important information to ourselves (i.e. you need to slow down, you need to ask for help, etc), the actual stress and anxiety (and even depression) that overwhelm can bring is not good for our minds and bodies, so let's look at what we can do to manage, reduce and work through overwhelm. That's what this post is going to do!
Here's How You Manage Overwhelm (in Five Simple Steps)
A quick but important note on overwhelm. Overwhelm is a state of mind that shouldn't be long-lasting or debilitating on a daily basis. If overwhelm is showing up like this for you, I would strongly advise you talk to someone about it be it a friend, family member or medical professional. I am not an expert on overwhelm or stress or anxiety, but I am someone who experiences overwhelm quite regularly and like I said above, because this has increased in recent months, I've also become more vigilant about trying to manage overwhelm, hence why I'm sharing this post today.
Interestingly, in researching what happens when we are feel overwhelm I found quite a bit of research saying that overwhelm - the act of feeling flooded or buried with a certain emotion - can also be positive. For example you can feel overwhelmed by happiness, love, laughter etc. However, for the purposes of this little write-up I want to talk specifically about more negative experiences of overwhelm, specifically when you feel stressed by too many things, be that too many tasks to do for work, too many demands from your children, or just too many negative things happening in your life or the world around you.
I think it's fair to say, it is sadly very normal and understandable to be feeling overwhelmed A LOT these days because there is a lot happening in the world - on a global scale as well as community and familial and personal levels - so let me ease your mind about feeling overwhelmed regularly; it's to be expected. I have been struggling with overwhelm a lot in relation to thinking about both my day-to-day duties with both kids at home a lot, and in relation to things that are out of control like my travel blog business tanking, and not being able to see my family in UK for a long time.
Because the overwhelm I felt was regular, and often debilitating for longer than I recognised was necessary, I have spent a lot of time thinking how I can better manage it. Writing these tips have been helpful to not only help me see what I have learned and what works but to also work through some "general overwhelm" I've been feeling in the last few weeks.
So I do hope these tips and just taking a moment to think about how you handle any negative feeling or sensation you experience gives you some more tools in your toolbox to feel more confident about tackling it, or simply not letting it steal all your joy and/or energy when it comes up.
Tips for Managing Overwhelm, Anxiety or Stress
As with most uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings I encounter - and overwhelm is 100% a member of that club, possibly even Chairperson this year, to be honest - I have found two things very helpful when feel lost in a feeling or state that I don't enjoy.
- Firstly, I do what I can to stop resisting what I am feeling. I don't question WHY I feel what I feel, and I try to stop looking for ways to feel better, especially if I have already tried and failed to do this. I accept whatever it is I feel and I try to preserve what energy I have for more helpful endeavours, which began with the next step.
- Secondly, I get curious about what I'm feeling. This does not mean I question the Why or the How I came to feel what I am experiencing. It's more simple and specific than that. I try to observe and identify the What I am feeling in terms of physical sensations, and to a certain extent emotional feelings to in their most basic form. The good news is that the first part of this equation - physical sensations - can often help you decipher the emotional side, and at the same time can help you counteract the unpleasant physical feelings and the uncomfortable feelings too. How do I do that? By asking myself some key, open-ended questions.
- How is my breath? (Am I breathing fast? Slow? Shallow? Deep? Can I slow down my breath? How much more can I slow down my exhale?)
- What physical needs do I have right now? (Am I thirsty? Am I hungry? Am I tired? Do I need to go to the toilet? Do I need to sit down? Do I have any pain or other physical discomfort?)
- Which muscles can I relax right now? (Is your jaw tense? Are you clenching your teeth? Are your shoulders raised? Can you unclench your fists? Stretch out your fingers? Lie down? Sit down?)
- What would help me physically? (Stretching, sitting down, lying down, breathing slower, wearing looser clothes, taking a shower - you don't need to do any of these things right in this moment but it's good for you to start thinking about
- Where is my head? (This sounds strange, but what I really want to say with it how present are you in this moment? How far down your mental To Do list are you? Or are you stuck in a moment or in a place you were previously?)
- The third thing I do once I've asked myself these questions is tweak my physical experience as much as possible. Let's keep the same headings so you reconfirm which things you need to be checking and working on.
- Breath: Slow down your breath. Take in more oxygen. Release more carbon dioxide. Let your exhale slower and more deliberately. If you need a specific reference for calming breathing this could help.
- Address Your Physical Needs: Go to the toilet. Take a drink of water. Eat some fruit or a handful of nuts to ensure your blood sugar isn't dipping. Have you been standing or moving around too long? Sit down or lie down. Raise your feet or legs up if you can so the blood circulates your body better. If you've been sitting or lying for a long time, move. Stand and breathe deeper, or walk slowly and gently. Stretch if you think that would help.
- Relax Your Body: As per your quick check of how relaxed your body is or isn't, do another body scan but this time stop at each body part and actively relax it. Sometimes we can clench and tense our muscles without even realising it, so even one second after you relax your jaw or lower your shoulders, your body has reverted back to clenching or tensing. A slower, more deliberate body scan where you linger over each body part actively relaxing them for at least a few seconds can be more effective. If it helps Headspace has some great guided meditations you can do if you're new to body scans. Personally, I like to start at the top of my head - and I'm a jaw and shoulder tenser so this is a more effective place to start! - and work down to my toes; and you don't need to be lying down or sitting, you can still body scan at any given moment even when walking or doing something else.
- Help Your Physical Self: Alongside actively relaxing my body and trying to remove tension from my body, you can address some of those "nice to haves" your questioning yourself may have highlighted. The goal here is to make yourself feel a little bit better physically. For me, that often involves adjusting my clothing - I love looser clothes, and frankly, taking my bra off! - and I also like to hit the "pause" button and "treat myself" by making myself a cup of tea and/or ensuring I eat something if it's possible my blood sugar is dipping. Other things I've done in the past to address my physical state have included opening a window for fresh air, putting on a pair of warm socks, taking my shoes off, making myself a hot water bottle, going somewhere I can have private cry (the shower is my favourite), a quick scream into a pillow, spending a bit of time with my plants, lighting a candle, yawning (it's like a mini re-set for your brain), lying down with a pillow or two on my tummy (it's like a DIY weighted blanket), going for a walk, doing a quick yoga sequence, stretching, moisturising, brushing my hair or tying it up, treating myself to a sugar high...
- Find Yourself in the Present Moment. While meditating and breathing are the most obvious ways to reconnect with yourself AND the present moment, there are other ways you can pull your focus back to the moment you are currently in. My favourite way is talking to myself. Yep, you read that right. When I deliberately take control of the conversation my brain is having with itself - because you better believe you are ALWAYS having a conversation with yourself even if you don't realise it. If you've read my blog for a while or followed my Instagram for a while you will know that I am a big fan and cheerleader for affirmation. Simply saying a few positive things to myself can really help bring me back to the present moment AND also help me feel better about whatever is going on in my head. Remember you are already IN THE MOMENT. You are there, you just need to feel it. Another thing you should always remember is that you are already wherever you are supposed to be. No matter how many other things you have to do, or what other people are expecting from you, when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and you stop to acknowledge and accept this, you are doing exactly what you need to do to move through it.
Needless - I hope! - to say, not all of these things will apply at any one given time, and it's also very possible that you have very real time or physical restrictions on your time but no matter where you're at or what you're doing, your body, mind and soul can always benefit from feeling calmer, from breathing slower, from being kinder to yourself...
- The fourth step in overwhelm management that I find possibly the most effective at instigating or acting as a catalyst for doing all the above is asking myself the following question: How am I showing myself love right now?
Sometimes just taking a moment to question our self-love is effective as a reminder for you to be more active in showing it to yourself. If self-love is an icky or uncomfortable term for you then switch up how you ask the question. Try "How am I being kind to myself right now?" or "Am I being nice to myself right now?" or "How am I showing up for myself in this moment?"
Either way, if you can't answer this question you are going to struggle to manage your overwhelm because let me tell you that overwhelm, stress, anxiety, and depression are all masters at ridding your of common sense and logic, you are not going to beat, manage or reduce overwhelm well by hating on yourself or punishing yourself. Loving yourself through whatever unpleasant feeling or episode you're experiencing is going to be much more effective than getting angry with yourself, feeling shame or guilt, or indulging a lengthy inner dialogue riddled with negative self-talk.
5. Which brings us nicely to the fifth thing you can do: Intentionally Show Yourself Some Love
If you've got to this stage and now feel this is the biggest obstacle of all, and I will agree that when you are feeling fully overwhelmed, showing yourself love can feel impossible, but if you've managed to breathe deeper for a few seconds, conduct a mini body scan or just gone to the toilet before contracting a bladder infection YOU HAVE ALREADY SHOWN YOURSELF LOVE.
Being kind to yourself isn't (just) made up of big acts of self-care like bubble baths and early nights with Netflix. I believe it's actually much more effective when you make it smaller, more manageable and done more consistently and regularly. Like, yep, you guessed it - affirmation.
This can be as simple as just repeating "I am safe" or "I am loved" or "I am awesome" over and over again. Or you can literally start a positive dialogue with yourself that actively dismisses and counteracts any negative feeling or worry you are currently experiencing: "I have a lot to do but I am capable of a lot of things" "I am feeling stretched right now but I can and will adapt" "I deserve to take a break and feel calmer" "Looking after my mental health is more important than any to do list".
Affirmations to Help With Overwhelm
If you're looking for more affirmations for helping with overwhelm or stress, here are some more positive affirmations I have written and actively use all the time when I feel overwhelmed. Some are long affirmations, others are shorts; please do take and try them out and tweak them if you need to.
- There are many good reasons why I feel overwhelmed right now, but that doesn't mean I have to struggle or experience stress.
- I let go of what I cannot control out of love for myself.
- There are many things that I cannot control; but there are always some I can; my next breath, closing my eyes, focusing on the love inside myself.
- Being overwhelmed is not a sign of weakness or failure; it's a sign that I love life and want to live it fully.
- I cannot control what I feel right now, but I can control my next thought. I will pause and make it a positive one.
- Overwhelm is not a sign of weakness or failure; it's an opportunity to slow down and make positive changes.
- Not knowing where to start is not the same as not being able to start. I am able to do things to help ease my overwhelm.
- Thinking I cannot do something does not mean I actually cannot do it. My thoughts are not facts.
- It is always okay to feel and do things differently compared to others.
- I will not stay overwhelmed forever. Time will ease the load I am carrying.
- Overwhelm has no bearing on my ability or worth.
- This is hard, but not impossible. I can do hard things.
As with all affirmation, pick the one or ones that work best for you and cling to them. Not all affirmations are for all people, you really only need one or two to really click and then you will reap the benefits.
Read more about how and why affirmation works here, and you can find a couple of lists of affirmations here - one for general daily use, affirmations for general anxiety and hard times here, and positive affirmations to help you heal (for different kinds of people).
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Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.