Overwhelm Recovery


I received an email asking about what to do when you have many different responsibilities and it’s overwhelming.

Sometimes life is a lot – dealing with teenagers, work, plus aging parents. Having toddlers while working from home and still wanting to do activities with friends and volunteering. Preparing for a move, wedding, play, or vacation on top of the normal responsibilities.

The to-do list can seem endless and it feels like life is nothing but knocking off the next thing on the list. Maybe you’ve gotten a little grumpy or martyr-like because it feels like it’s too much.

If your life is always too much, that usually means you have limits you don’t want to admit. Limits like not enough time, not enough energy, and not enough space. You want to do all the things, but you are pulled in so many directions life isn’t fulfilling at all.

In that case, I usually look at the biggest time issue to let go of. Maybe it’s a problem client. Or a hobby you have gotten carried away with. Maybe you can’t volunteer until your kids get a little older. Or you have to let go of some projects until you finish the ones you are in the middle of.

If this is an overwhelming time in your life because of circumstances and you’ve already let go of what you can, then you want to make this time feel better.

  • Ask for help. Pay for a service, explain what is happening and get the support of your family, maybe a teenage neighbor or a grandmother at your church.
  • Stay present. If you are constantly thinking of the next thing on your list you are going to be worn out. You’ll be in your head too much. So feel the clothes as you are folding, open a window and enjoy a breeze while you do dishes, look at your table gleam as you polish it.
  • Enjoy the momentum. Often when you have a huge list, it seems it’s never-ending and you never reach completion. So think in terms of, “This task will give me momentum for this project.” Even if you don’t complete things today, you know you are moving forward.
  • Notice what you do accomplish. When you are only noticing what didn’t get done, you aren’t going to have the motivation to do your tasks. You’ll have the self-defeating rants about, “You never get things done” “You barely touched your list” “You have been so lazy. Look at everything that is left.” Instead at the end of the day, look at everything you did accomplish. Including things not on the list – tending to the baby, listening to a friend in pain, being in awe of a sunset. Life is not all about what you get done.
  • Allow yourself to rest. Sometimes if we push, push, push we wipe out our energy. We think we have so much to do that we can’t stop. And then you collapse. Your body and mind refuses to do anything else. Then we can be down for awhile. Instead, plan breaks into your schedule. You are going to take them anyway, so you might as well take them proactively instead of after burnout.
  • Plan activities to look forward to. If you are only doing work-like tasks, you will eventually want to stay in bed all day. You need to plan things you WANT to do, even if for a few minutes. Flipping through a magazine, dancing to some of your favorite tunes, taking a walk with a friend. It seems counter-intuitive to add more to your list when you feel overwhelmed, but this is where your energy will come from.
  • Next 3 things. Deep breathe until you feel calm. If you don’t have one, write a list out of everything you need to do. Look over your list and get a quick feel for what is most important. Star or write down 3 things to do next. Do those three things with focus. Take a break. Then pick 3 more things. If you are too overwhelmed to prioritize, number your to do list. Go to random.org and pick a random number that correlates to your list to start with. Usually once you start on that first task you get unstuck.
  • Move your body. Stuck and overwhelm are feelings in the body. So breathe. Take a walk to clear your head. Shake and wiggle your body. Roar out your agitation. Dance. Stomp your feet. Get energy going in some way and see if you have more clarity when you are done.
  • Stop. If you are running around in circles doing tasks, but without thinking or planning – stop. You are moving with agitation and fear, which means you aren’t making the best decisions. Whenever you are doing things with push and rush, you are more likely to make mistakes and not be doing what is the priority. Instead pause. It can be 30 seconds. Close your eyes, calm your breathing. Then do a little quick planning on a piece of paper. What actually has to be done today? What would be the best way to do that? What can I delegate? Where can I add breaks? What am I looking forward to? Too often we feel we don’t have the time to plan, but just a few minutes of planning can save hours.
  • Watch your language. Saying, “I am so overwhelmed,” is rarely helpful. Instead you can say you have a full life. An adventurous life. You are living out loud. Whatever gives you energy instead of taking it away. Decide to say your new phrase, every time you want to say the word overwhelmed. And when you feel it. Do something from the bullet points above.

Part of the human experience is realizing that how you are being can be just as important than what you are doing. How do you want to do your activities? With joy or with overwhelm? I wish for you moments of clarity, deep breathing and compassion.

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