Feeling overwhelmed happens when we feel we have too much on, and not enough power to handle the load. It can feel like a huge snowball about to start rolling, and it can cripple our ability to use our mind and body in the best possible way.
In short, it really sucks. However, we don’t have to feel that way. I’ve rounded up some pretty spectacular scientific and psychological research that shows… change can happen. Yes, to you too.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might experience an array of unhelpful thoughts such as worry, guilt, or helplessness; emotions like anxiety, frustration or anger; and physical reactions like crying, being violent, or having a panic attack. There are countless factors that could contribute to you feeling overwhelmed, and some of them could be:
- Becoming a (new) parent
- Starting a new job that feels harder than the previous
- Losing a loved one
- Being in an abusive or violent relationship
- Losing money
- An ever-expanding to-do list
- Social media
- Experiencing something traumatic
The list is endless, and stressors can be found everywhere. Common signs you’re overwhelmed often include having extreme reactions to small events (like having a meltdown when you can’t find your glasses), feeling too fatigued or sad to participate in simple activities, having trouble concentrating, or being irritable and prickly.
If removing the trigger is not possible, then it’s important to know that there are changes you can implement to help you deal with overwhelm. Experiencing an unpleasant moment doesn’t mean you have be subjugated by it.
However, before we begin, here’s a simple thought:
Listen to the clues
You feel overwhelmed, and you’re experiencing high levels of anxiety, anger or frustration. Before trying to fix the feeling, ask yourself what your anxiety, anger or frustration are indicating. Are you overworked? Are you raising kids with little to no support? Do you feel that your partner is not listening? This seems like a simple thing to ask yourself, but you’d be surprised what honing in on the problem does for your overall wellness.
Science & psychology offer some solace
Below are 5 favourite, easy and important life changes you can implement to deal with overwhelm. I also wrote an another article about 5 little tips and tricks to feeling less overwhelmed on a daily basis, when the big changes have been implemented.
1. Meet your basic needs: Sleep, Eat, Exercise.
Ah, basic needs. The thing that overwhelmed people really don’t think they can achieve. Who has time to sleep or cook a healthy meal, when there is so much else to do?
I used to think that way too. Sleeping 8 hours was for obviously lazy people. I had work to do! And why doesn’t a sandwich at my desk count as a healthy meal? And does walking to the tube not count as daily exercise?
Sleep all your 8 hours
Society often thinks of sleep as a ‘nice to have’ , as opposed to a biological imperative. Isn’t that wild? And why does our brain think that the cure to having a lot on our plate… is to add more?
The brilliant Arianna Huffington knows all about the power of sleep when feeling overwhelmed. She realised that asking our brain to work at 100% when only feeding it 60% was impossible, even for a mega CEO boss lady like her. Jeff Bezos has often said that he doesn’t take important meetings with his Amazon stakeholders past 1pm; he works best in the morning, after a full night of sleep. (Me too, Jeff. Me too)
There is so much we don’t know about sleep. For one, the exact reasons humans need it. However, not only do we know that we need it, we also have buckets of scientific research showing the correlation between sleep and improved mental health. And who is going to say no to feeling better, when all you have to do is… sleep?
Eat like you really mean it
There is an obvious health correlation between food and our brain – i.e, we need food to support all of of its activities; but that’s not the only reason why our food practices should be better. In a study about eating mindfully, which means savouring food, and taking time out to eat slowly, the subjects reported better emotional functioning when eating mindfully, not just relating to food, but also their lives.
However, when we feel overwhelmed we often don’t think of food as the pleasurable activity it can be. We think of it as another chore to add to our to do list.
Exercise.. or at least go for a walk!
Our bodies are made to move. The first thing that tends to suffer when we’re feeling overwhelmed is our ‘adult play time’. Why? “Because we don’t have time to go to Zumba when the plate is full”
But is that right?
Studies have repeatedly shown how exercise improves our mental wellness; and not just because exercising releases endorphins, which reduce the perception of pain. Exercising also allows you to take a mental and physical time out from what you are doing, allowing your brain a moment of rest from stressors, and to focus on doing something fun instead.
Hate burpees? A walk around the park works too.
In conclusion: The first things we neglect when feeling overwhelmed are our basic needs. And if our bodies and minds are not rested and fed, there are no tips and techniques that will make any difference. Think of yourself FIRST. A long shower could be a great starting point.
2. Practice Gratitude
There is quite a bit of scientific and psychological research on the power of gratitude in general, and especially during stressful or traumatic periods. The research suggests that feeling grateful during an adverse moment helps our brain positively reinterpret a bad experience, highlighting ‘what went well’ instead of ‘what went badly’. The same research also suggest that more we practice being grateful on a daily basis, the more manageable our traumatic and stressful experiences will feel.
In conclusion: your boss has added more work on your already packed to-do list. Instead of feeling angry or anxious about it, try feeling grateful that s/he trusts you with it, that you will be able to learn more, and work on becoming very efficient. Gratitude for having a job to begin with is also a good start.
3. Give yourself a big chunk of time off (yes, really!)
If there is too much on your plate, chances are that taking time out is the last thing you want to do. But hear me out. A paper published in 2017 on the powers of the wandering mind, shows how taking breaks is not only great for our productivity, it actually allows for our brain to reset and think new thoughts from new perspectives.
What’s more, when you are overwhelmed with to-dos, you are often not as efficient with your tasks, by sheer virtue of being overwhelmed. This often leads to starting a task, then getting distracted by online scrabble, and never really finishing. You create these tiny ‘time confettis’ : five minutes here, ten minutes there – and they don’t offer much rest at all. It’s like eating a pizza two or three crumbs at a time. It’s hard to feel full that way, right?
In conclusion: if you’re feeling overwhelmed, decide what task you must do today, and defer the rest to tomorrow. You’ll be surprised to find that the world can go on with unironed clothes, or leftovers instead of a meal made from scratch. Same goes with work: ask your boss for an extension, and take yourself to the park. Your mental health is more important than any task.
4. Connect (with people, not… your phone!)
Humans are notoriously social creatures. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, one of the first things that goes is our willingness to connect and share the load with others. We don’t have time for catch-ups, or we don’t want to burden our loved ones. (Interestingly, if a loved one called and asked for help, we often don’t think of them as being a burden)
But then suddenly ‘taking me time’ becomes ‘loneliness’, and we have lost a huge part of what makes us feel good: other people. Feeling isolated or lonely is said to have the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It kills more people than obesity.
So, how can you easily connect, and what kinds of connections help you feel calmer and more in control?
Any and all human interactions count. Having dinner with a friend, attending a social gathering, making small talk with the clerk at the post office. But also just joining online groups for basketball lovers, book clubs, a volunteering group. The other thing that might surprise is that others need YOU just as much!
In conclusion: Make time for human connection, even if it’s something small. Call a relative, ask a neighbour if they need help, return a phone call to a friend.
5. Challenge negative thoughts
Science suggests that the more we think we are doing badly, the worse we’ll do. Equally, the more negative self-talk we engage in, the less productive, happy and healthy we’ll be.
Saying things like ‘my to-do list is infinite, and I’ll never get around to it’ is both unproductive and negative – and certainly not conducive to you completing the to-dos.
If your to-do list is not manageable in one day, then split it throughout the week. Do one urgent thing today, and the rest tomorrow. If everything needs to be done today delegate, or ask for help.
More importantly, challenge the way you think about, and verbalise, your overwhelm. Instead of saying things like ‘I’ll never get around to finishing this’ try saying more empowering things like ‘I can break this down in small tasks, and do one at a time’ or ‘If I can’t get this done today, the world won’t end’