Shit needs to be done and bills have to be paid and the dog puked on the carpet and the kid had a meltdown and we have appointments today but the car broke down and we need to eat and the house is a disaster and the basement is flooding and OMG I’m feeling so overwhelmed with life! Is it ever going to stop?
It’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities that life constantly throws at you. Sometimes it feels like everything is coming at you at once and you have a hard time coping with it all.
How can anyone possibly manage so many all-consuming things at once? The truth is that nobody can do it all. NOBODY. To begin to stop feeling overwhelmed with life, you have to deal with one thing at a time.
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What does it mean to feel overwhelmed?
Feeling overwhelmed is an all-consuming state of mind and is not easy to define. Vocabulary.com had the best definition of overwhelming that I could relate to: “Something overwhelming is very intense and hard to deal with: overwhelming events make people worried and stressed out.”
What causes people to feel overwhelmed?
There are many different reasons people become overwhelmed, including:
- Relationship issues
- Physical or mental illness
- Career or work challenges
- Financial issues
- Life changes; including marriage, childbirth, divorce, moving, buying or selling a house
- Death of a loved one
- Time management or productivity issues
- Personal trauma
- Awesome things that fill us with emotion
For the purposes of this article, we will look at how to stop feeling overwhelmed with life because you have to deal with too many responsibilities at the same time. I will use the relatively minor example of something that was stressing me out not too long ago.
I was feeling overwhelmed with all the minute details of how I was going to pull off a family dinner for 11 I offered to host and cook. In the end, the dinner was successful and delicious (I didn’t burn anything), and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. In fact, most of the family was so full and comfortable, they even had an after-dinner nap!
What happens to you when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
When you have too many things to do at once, you can feel the stress building as each task is added to your list. Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” floods your body and creates increasing anxiety, which results in the “fight or flight” feeling of being overwhelmed.
At the same time, you may feel frozen and paralyzed and not know what to do. You can’t seem to take that first step to lead yourself out of the paralysis. So you do nothing. You are completely overwhelmed.
I decided on Monday that we would host the Friday night dinner. That decision alone provoked feelings of overwhelm because of the logistics involved. Everyone invited lives at least an hour away and some don’t drive. How could we possibly make this happen?
How do you know if you’re feeling overwhelmed?
There are many possible symptoms of feeling overwhelmed, including:
- Difficulty focusing and/or concentrating or being easily distracted
- Foggy thoughts and forgetfulness
- Lightheadedness, dizziness and/or nausea
- Difficulty thinking logically or acting rationally
- Impaired problem solving skills
- Racing thoughts
- Shallow breathing
Feeling overwhelmed may also negatively affect your emotions, resulting in:
- Anger or irritability
- Anxiety and excessive worrying
- Self-doubt and feelings of helplessness
- Panic attacks and feelings of doom
Even though I have lots of experience hosting and cooking family dinners, I couldn’t calm the overwhelming racing thoughts of HOW everyone would get here and where everyone would sit at our table for 8.
12 steps to stop feeling overwhelmed with life
1. Acknowledge that you are feeling overwhelmed
Fighting the anxiety and overwhelming feelings will get you nothing but more anxiety and more overwhelm.
When you accept and acknowledge these feelings, you recognize that the feelings won’t go away just because you want them to. Acceptance is the first step to take back control and ride the wave.
I took a deep breath and let the anxiety wash over me. I accepted the fact that I had extended the invitations because I wanted to see our family for the holiday. They also wanted to spend time with us. It was simply family getting together to spend time together and enjoy a good meal.
2. Be mindful and focus on the present
Keep your mind focused on the present and the task you are doing right now. Try not to let the negative thoughts consume your mind and stress you out even more.
Try to identify what the trigger is that is making you feel so overwhelmed. Realize you have choices. Think about how you can reframe the situation to focus on solutions instead of problems and you will find that your perspective begins to change.
I recognized I was feeling inadequate and insecure about pulling off a great dinner that everyone would enjoy. I also realized that I hadn’t left myself much time to get everything ready in time for the dinner.
3. Ground yourself
To further focus on the present and alleviate some of the anxiety, just stop, breathe and reset how you feel about the situation.
Take stock of your senses by noticing five things you can see, five things you can hear, and five things you can feel, taste or smell. Our basic human senses remind us that we are here now and that we are safe.
I took a deep breath and told myself I’ve done this before and I can do this again.
4. Don’t try to be perfect
Good enough really is good enough. Seeking perfection causes a lot of unnecessary stress, frustration and misery. We don’t live in a perfect world and life would be really boring if we did.
Some of the most enjoyable things in life are often the results of mistakes we make and are the best way we learn, grow and evolve as a person. A good example is the great stories we all tell of things that went very, very wrong.
We are constantly bombarded with images of the perfectly decorated table, the perfectly plated meal, the perfectly carved turkey – I could go on but I won’t because I’ll get overwhelmed again. I am not Martha Stewart! The reality is that I’m not a crafty or decorating type of person. I will never be that type of person. In short, ain’t NOBODY got time for that!
I focused on my strengths instead. I AM a great cook and I AM a problem solver. I decided to focus on that and cook the best damn dinner I could, even if it wasn’t Instagram worthy.
You don’t have to accept every invitation extended to you. You don’t have to agree to every request someone makes of you. Learning to say no can help you conserve your limited time and energy and earn you respect from yourself as well those around you.
The best resource I’ve found to learn how to say no is the book F*ck No!: How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To by Sarah Knight. In it, she provides the following decision chart for saying yes or no:
You can get a lot more great information on saying no, dealing with anxiety and generally feeling overwhelmed by life in Sarah’s No Fucks Given Guides.
My situation was all my own doing, so I couldn’t blame anyone else for asking me to do it.
6. Build a strong support system
Start with your family and friends, who all have your best interests at heart. Try to ensure that they are a positive influence and weed out the negative energy suckers.
If you find you aren’t getting the kind of support you need from your family and friends, reach out to like-minded souls in your community by joining some activity or hobby groups that interest you. Even if you don’t make close connections, you can still enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of the activity or hobby.
I enlisted the help of family members who agreed to pick up and drop off the people who didn’t drive.
The ability to effectively delegate allows you to accomplish more. Ask someone to do something and trust that they will get it done. Remember other people can do some things better than you can.
Don’t micromanage tasks as this will lead to reluctance to assist you in the future. While you may think you know the best way to accomplish a task, the person you’re delegating to may have a better idea. Nobody likes criticism when they’re trying to help you out.
I delegated table and chair setup and setting the table to my son and my partner. While I did all of the cooking, my son mashed potatoes and my partner carved the meat just before dinner was served, which allowed me and my son to put the finishing touches on the other dishes and get them on the table. Everyone helped with the cleanup and then we had dessert and relaxed.
8. Manage expectations (your own and others’)
Expectations are the beliefs we have about something that will happen in the future. People, including yourself, can be very disappointed when their expectations aren’t met.
Be honest with yourself and communicate clearly with others involved what they can and cannot expect from you. Let them know if external factors can affect the outcome. If expectations are made clear in advance, there is a much lower chance of disappointment.
I let everyone know when I invited them what the menu was and that, to minimize dishwashing duties, we were going to be eating off of paper plates. Everybody was fine with that.
9. Be grateful
Gratitude is the act of acknowledging and being thankful for the good things in our life. It elicits a positive emotional response by producing feelings of happiness, pleasure and contentment. It lowers the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies and positively impacts our overall health and well-being.
You may want to start to keep a Gratitude Journal, to help yourself pay attention to the good things in life you’d otherwise take for granted. It’s recommended to write it in once a week to establish the habit of paying attention to events and people who inspire gratitude.
The main reason we hosted this dinner was that we were grateful to have such a wonderful family and we wanted to see them. This is always on our minds.
Resentments are negative feelings that you may have been carrying around for years. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may have fallen into a pattern of thinking that you’re the only one you can count on to get everything done and blaming others for not helping or taking over.
Challenge those resentments. Here’s an exercise to help identify the source of your resentments and let them go.
We don’t ‘keep score’ of mistakes made or hurt feelings. We all helped out and avoided anyone feeling any resentment.
11. Reboot and refocus
Take a step back and just take a short break. Go for a walk, listen to some music, meditate or even take a short nap. If possible, take an overnight or weekend break.
A break will leave you mentally and emotionally refreshed with a new perspective on exactly what it is you need to do and when you need to do it.
I waited until the next day, after transportation arrangements had been made, to continue the planning process.
Make a list of all the things you need to do in order to accomplish everything that is making you feel overwhelmed. Start with the things that will take 5 minutes or less and just do them and check them off, unless you need to do something else first in order to do that thing.
Next, try to prioritize the things you like to do, if it works within your timeline. It’s easier to start with doing something you enjoy and ticking that off your list and the small accomplishments help build momentum.
Continue to prioritize your list to progressively reach your goal. This helps to keep you focused and on track.
My list looked something like this:
- Appetizers/Dinner Menu – asap
- Grocery shopping – before end of week
- Transportation – who can pick up mother-in-law? – asap
- Seating – before weekend
- How to cook everything in tiny kitchen with about 10 sq ft of available counter space – day before
- Messy house – day of because there’s too much else to do during the week
13. Make a plan and execute it
A plan gives you step-by-step details that will help stop you from feeling overwhelmed because you will know exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it. This helps give you a greater sense of control over the situation.
The following list is what I planned for our holiday dinner:
- Appetizers: Veggie tray with dip; meat, cheese and crackers platter
- Dinner Menu: Roasted turkey, honey-mustard ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, garlic green beans, buttered corn, fresh dinner rolls, cupcakes for dessert (upcoming birthday)
- Grocery shopping list – created based on the menu – what can I ask my guests to bring? Remember everyone wants to participate and it’s good to ask for help.
- Transportation – Mom and step-dad will pick up/drop off mother-in-law on the way
- Seating – how can we accommodate 10 people at a table for 8? Pull out some TV trays and add to table
- Messy house – Stop Procrastinating and Clean Your House!
- Cooking sequence in tiny kitchen with about 10 sq ft of available counter space – cook ham in crock pot and stuffing in Instant Pot. Turkey in oven. Corn in microwave. Potatoes, green beans and gravy on stovetop. Put dishes on dining table as ready, with lids to keep them warm. Rob to carve turkey and ham
Execute your plan
Now it’s time to focus on your plan. It’s all laid out right there in front of you! Keep it simple and let it guide you. Remember to be flexible because, well, shit happens! Don’t let the little things derail you and leave you feeling overwhelmed again. You’ve got this!
I followed my plan with minimal changes. I had offers of help, but I found that it’s easier if nobody else is in my tiny kitchen. No exaggeration! If I tried to move something from one spot to the other with someone else in the kitchen, there would likely be some sort of collision. I kept my cool and got everything on the table cooked perfectly and hot. The one exception was asking my partner to carve the turkey and ham once everything else was already on the table. I was done at that point! Everyone, including myself, thoroughly enjoyed their meal. I call it a win!
It’s imperative to practice self-care. It’s like putting the oxygen mask on yourself before anyone else on an airplane. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to take care of anyone or anything else.
Make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthy food and get enough physical activity. Everyone needs fun and relaxation in their lives, so make time for it in yours.
You might want to pick up a hobby such as yoga and/or meditation to incorporate physical exercise and relaxation into your schedule to help manage your stress on a regular basis.
15. What other people think of you is none of your business
We can’t read other people’s minds and, even if we could, we can’t do anything about what they think. And when we assume, we usually assume the worst.
Don’t do things based on what you think other people think of you. You will only add more pressure on top of the overwhelming pressure you are already feeling.
The only thing that matters and that you can control is what you think of yourself. Save yourself time and energy and focus on what really matters to YOU.