What to do when you are feeling overwhelmed

Your thoughts are racing but not complete and are filled with bad future scenarios.  Your email inbox is full and unread, the car needs a service, the kids won’t eat the dinner you cooked, your partner is working late, you are getting a cold and it is only Tuesday.  You can feel your body react to the anticipated stress of the future.  “I have so much to do and so little time!” you tell yourself.   Once you are on this runaway train, it is truly difficult to stop the spiral of negative thoughts.  “I can’t cope” we conclude, “this is just too much”.  If we are not talking about normal responses to severely traumatic life events, generally you can and will cope.  But our brains like to tell us scary stories.

The state of “overwhelm” occurs when we assess that we do not have the resources to meet the demands being placed on us.  Modern life floods us with stimulation, information, social connectivity and choices.  If we perceive we have too many things to do and not enough resources to do these things, we will feel overwhelmed.  Whilst perception is reality, we can change our perception.


The states of “busy” and “not busy” aren’t defined by how many things there are to do.  Being too busy or not being busy is an interpretation of our activity.  “Busy-ness” is a state of mind, not a fact.  No matter how much or how little we’re doing, we are always just doing what we are doing in that moment.  Our minds create stories that cause us to feel overwhelmed.  We have control to change what we tell ourselves about both demands being placed on us and what resources we have to meet these demands.  If you are feeling overwhelmed, try the following things:

Get Organised

Physical clutter feeds the feeling of being overwhelmed.  Getting control over your physical environment can clear mental clutter and free up valuable energy.  Sort out your personal space, at home, work and in cyber space.  Empty out the junk from your life and leave a clean and organised surface which lays the foundation for gaining control of your life.


Steal back time from your chattering thoughts.  Turn everything off and just sit.  Focus on your breathing and physical state.  Inhale calm and then examine which parts of your life are causing your to feel overwhelmed.  Like monsters under the bed, shining mental light on what scares us makes frightening things lose some of their power.

Write it down

Now, write down what is overwhelming you without audit.  A “Worry Journal” is a written record of all the future thoughts that are plaguing you.  Examine each one.  Have they happened yet?  Are they likely to happen?  How bad would it really be if they happened?  Now problem solve the real worries and come up with a plan.
Next, write a “To Live” list.   This is a collection of wishes, dreams, and moments of joy you want to experience in your life.  It’s not just a bucket list, but also a collection of things you want to do more often. It helps you get excited about life and also reminds you of the why in what you are doing.  When I start to feel overwhelmed, I think about my children.  They are my most important priority and supporting them is therefore also my most important priority.  I work hard to earn good money to provide for them.  I find that deeply motivating and reminding myself of this reinforces my choices and ability to deal with challenges.
It can also be useful to write down stray thoughts, ideas or anxieties that enter your mind during the day and analyse them later.  I brain dump my “To Do” lists on to paper and then prioritise hard.

Do what you should do.  I work with so many very smart leaders who cannot let go.  They spend too much of their precious time on tasks that they should not be doing.  They struggle to delegate and end up overwhelmed by unimportant but necessary work.  Ask yourself “am I the only person who can do this?” And then “should I be the only person who can do this?”.  These same questions apply to our personal lives.  Should I be making a teenager her lunch everyday?  Should I be cleaning my house every Saturday if I can afford a cleaner?  Am I doing these things for the right reasons?
We spend more time planning our next holiday then we do our actual lives.  Get clear about what is truly important to you and set goals accordingly.  Then let the rest fall down the list.

Start saying No

The ability to say “No” is crucial to tackling feeling overwhelmed.   By saying “No” to one thing, you are giving yourself permission to say “Yes” to something important to you.  This includes attending time-wasting meetings and commitments you are undertaking out of guilt.  Really question your assumptions about what is important and how things need to be done.  It is likely you can afford to lower your standards in some areas of your life without compromising the outcome.
A related skill is the ability to ask for help and support.  This is not a sign of weakness but in fact one of strength.

Embrace change

Make time to think about your life and determine what you want to change.  Take the awful example of being diagnosed with cancer.  I have been in this situation so can speak from experience.  Once you hear those words, your mind goes into over-drive and creates worst-case scenarios.  It is all too easy to dwell on possible negative outcomes, to worry about treatment and to feel life is unfair.  The alternative is to choose to have a happy life.  This sounds ridiculous in the face of a cancer diagnosis.  It means choosing to work on the things that you can control scheduling appointments, getting information, making decisions and living fully in the present moment.  Taking each challenge one by one means controlling the things you can and changing your thinking about those you cannot.  Deal with one thing at a time before moving on to the next and reclaim your mental landscape.  Ask yourself, “Can I really do anything about this right now?”.  If not, then reground yourself in the present.  Anxiety is living in the wreckage of your future.  Don’t let your mind be overwhelmed by the stories it creates.  Feeling overwhelmed is a valuable sign that something needs to change in your life your priorities, your lifestyle, your goals, your choices.   Like a compass, feeling overwhelmed provides us with crucial information to change how we invest our time and what we are telling ourselves.  Don’t listen to that seductive voice telling you that you might not cope and it is all too much.  You’ve got this.


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