When was the last time you felt overwhelmed? Last week, yesterday, earlier today? My guess is, it probably wasn’t that long ago. If your triggers are anything like the moms I work with, overwhelm can hit you at any point and in any situation.
Sometimes it’s in the middle of the workday when the responsibilities and stresses of the job get to be so much that you think there’s no way you’ll ever climb out of this hole, let alone your inbox.
Sometimes it’s in the evenings when you come home to a messy house, a pile of laundry, and no certain plan for dinner that you feel like you’ve let your family down and what you should really do is quit your job so you could actually stay on top of all of it.
Sometimes overwhelm shows up when you’re surrounded by two children who are wallowing in their own overwhelm of emotions, crying and whining, that you think life will be this way forever. And you’re overwhelmed by the fact that YOU are the adult here!
Or sometimes, overwhelm waits to hit you until the craziness of the day has ended and you have your first quiet moment to yourself. When you finally sit down, exhale a big sigh of relief, and think about doing it all over again tomorrow, the crushing weight of overwhelm sits on you making it hard to breathe.
Can you relate? Whether it shows up at work, at home, with your kids, or when you’re by yourself, overwhelm feels heavy. It creates the feeling of being out of control of practically everything you can think of. And like the temper tantrums we often witness in our children, it can be hard to snap out of.
Trust me - we have all been there and some of us probably more frequently than we would like to admit.
But just like we’re taught how to approach and calm a toddler who is stuck in emotional overwhelm that looks like a screaming fit, there are things that we can do to help ourselves snap out of it. Things that can help us stop spiraling in that feeling of being out of control, and ground us in the present moment and the realities of the situation, which are -
- you will get through it,
- everything is not lost, and
- this is only temporary.
You’ve got this.
So the next time you feel that feeling, you know how it goes, your breath becomes short, your head starts to feel heavy, you can’t see past your own nose, and you might just break into tears if anyone asks you if you’re ok, try one, or try all of these things to catch your breath, and reset.
1. Close Your Eyes and Breathe
One of the signature symptoms of overwhelm is a loss of control - having more than you can handle, whether that’s work, chores, or emotions. One of the quickest ways to prove to yourself that you have more control than you are feeling in this moment is to take control of your breath. My go-to is the Headspace app. If you’ve not tried it, I highly recommend it. They have a 3 minute overwhelm meditation that I use all the time, even in public. I pop my earbuds in and let Andy’s voice calm me down.
But if you don’t have that, you can just as easily close your eyes and take 10 deep belly breaths. Count each inhale and exhale as you go and try to think of nothing else except your breathing and counting. Do another 10 and another, until you feel like you can open your eyes without freaking out again.
I find this counting to 10 method particularly helpful when I am in the presence of a toddler meltdown. It allows me to not get emotionally tied up in their drama and to create a sense of calm that I can then demonstrate and try to transfer to my little one. It doesn’t always work, but I at least get a short meditation in the midst of chaos.
2. Move Your Body
Last week when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by the amount of work and responsibilities on my plate, I shut my laptop, stood up and walked away. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to stand up, move your body and remove yourself from the situation.
Even if you can’t literally walk away, you can roll your shoulders or your neck, do a quick stretch, or if I’m at the office I will walk a few flights of stairs or take a quick lap around the parking lot. Anything the get the blood flowing again and to clear my head, which an elevated heart rate and some movement always do.
3. Drink a Full Glass of Water
Dehydration can be a trigger for so many out-of-control emotions. On days when I’ve not been drinking enough water, I am quick to snap at those around me, quick to fall into despair about anything that’s not going my way, and quick to feel overwhelmed. So if you can, fill up your glass and drink a lot of water. Drink it purposefully and drink if mindfully. For the next few seconds, your thoughts should only be about that glass of water and how you’re going to drink it. Then exhale.
4. Look Around and Name 5 Things You Are Grateful For
Quick, don’t overthink it, just look around the room or think about your day so far, and quickly list to yourself 5 things for which you are grateful. It could be as big as the opportunities that your job creates for you, the health insurance that you have for when you are sick, or the health that your family is experiencing right now, to small things like the amazing lipstick you are wearing today or the fact that you have access to clean drinking water (see previous tip).
Giving yourself a quick break to realize all the good that you have in your life is a sure-fire way to snap out of despair. And besides, it’s proven that gratitude increases happiness. So if you’re in for some drastic changes in your life, you could always turn this into a longer-term practice!
5. Eliminate Something From Your To-Do List
If thinking about all you have to do in life triggered your overwhelm, try challenging your list. There is probably a lot on there that HAS to get done. We all have weeks like that. But what is absolutely necessary and what is not? Can you have cereal for dinner so you can eliminate cooking from your to-do list for today? Can calling to schedule that appointment wait until next week when you’re not feeling so crazy? Can you be up-front with your client that you are not going to be able to get them that thing you promised for a few more days?
So often we tell ourselves that we HAVE to do certain things when in reality, the deadline is flexible. Most people understand a busy schedule and I think slowing down for a day or so might actually make you more productive in the end. Whereas powering through often means missed details and tasks completed with little effort.
6. Write Down Your Ta-Da List
Speaking of lists, I want you to do the opposite of crossing something off. I want you to create a list… of EVERYTHING you’ve done so far today. I bet you got up, brushed your teeth, made breakfast, dropped the kids off at daycare, listened to a podcast, crossed some to-do’s off your work list, ran an errand, returned a phone call, filled out some paperwork… you get the idea.
We never give ourselves enough credit for all the things that we do each day. Even if the only things we did were take a shower and feed and keep our kids alive, that’s actually pretty incredible. The fact that ON TOP of that, we’re working, doing laundry, and taking care of business is pretty dang impressive. So take a second to look at that big long list of things that you DID do today, and just say a little “ta-da!” to yourself. Don’t smile, someone might be watching.
7. Schedule Some Downtime
When you’ve got a lot going on, it can be particularly hard to give yourself a break. We keep thinking that this is just a “season” or that “work is really busy right now” and we put off a date night, an outing, or anything fun until things slow down. Well, what if they don’t slow down? What if you wait and wait for that opportunity to breathe and it never comes? What if this is the new normal?
You have got to schedule some downtime. You have got to give yourself something to look forward to. Make it quick, make it small, make it easy. Whatever works for you right now to just remind yourself of how good it feels to have a break and to have something to look forward to. And then you’ll probably be more motivated to schedule the next one and the next.
Don't feel bad about feeling overwhelmed. It happens to the best of us. Yes, it even happens to me. And because I know what that feels like, and I'm guessing you agree with me when I say it's not an enjoyable feeling, I want to make sure that you have the tools to stop yourself from spinning too far out of control. Because it's true what I said earlier - this feeling is only temporary. You've got this.