Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Anxiety

How to Deal With Overwhelm

Stop and breathe, walk away, and refocus.

Key points

  • Overwhelm is the state in which there is too much on your plate and it can lead to anxiety, unhealthy stress, and burnout.
  • A high percentage of women report experiencing increased levels of stress in the past 18 months.
  • When you know that working longer and harder is not the answer, you need a different approach.

Sometimes you feel it coming. Other times it hits you out of the blue. The tightness in your chest. Shortness of breath. Fuzzy brain, like you're trudging through your day with your head in thick white clouds. An inability to focus. Rising panic. And stone-cold fear that you won’t ever be able to get through it all.

You’re in overwhelm—that state in which there is too much on your plate, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done. It’s that feeling of being in over your head and it can lead to anxiety, unhealthy stress, and even burnout. We know, from the recent survey we conducted of over 1200 women, that a huge percentage of you have experienced increased levels of stress in the past 18 months and that the majority of you cite too much workload as a key contributing factor.

When you get to the point where you know that working longer and harder is not the answer, you need a different approach. Here are three steps you can put into immediate action next time you feel the cloud of overwhelm coming on.

Step One: Stop and Breathe. This may seem counterintuitive when you are so busy trying to get everything done with not enough time to do it all. But to end overwhelm, we first need to step out of the busyness. Otherwise, it becomes a vicious cycle and we end up running around and around in our own unproductiveness and panic. So whatever mechanism you need to use to stop yourself even just for a moment, do it.

You can start with consciously breathing—in through your nose and out through your nose. As your breathing starts to slow, extend your breath. Bring your breath down deep into your belly. Hold the inhale for a few counts and then slowly release, with a long exhale while counting to 2, 3, 4, 5. Now you are present. Your nervous system has kicked it down a notch. Your head will be clearing, if only the slightest amount. You regain the ability to focus.

Step Two: Walk Away. Stand up and move away from the situation that is causing overwhelm and anxiety. It could be your desk, your kitchen, a meeting, or your lounge room. If you can, go outside. If not, find a quiet space. You need to get some distance from the messiness. Walking away, even momentarily, provides enough of a break to get some perspective. And then, come back to your breath.

Step Three: Refocus. Take a few moments as you return to your space with a clearer mind and calmer nervous system. Write down all the things that are on your to-do list. As you do so, highlight the things that are adding fuel to your feeling of overwhelm.

Now look at the list, make three categories, and put each item on your to-do list into a category:

  1. Do Now
  2. Do Later
  3. Decline/Delegate.

Then, take time for a review:

  • How much is in the Do Now category?
  • Is every item necessary?
  • Is it a manageable number of items in the time available?

For those items that definitely must be on the Do Now list, jot down the estimated time it will take you to complete each task in actual hours. If it’s an ongoing task, then count the hours per week. When you add up the hours for your Do Now list you can quickly see if you are in the realm of the possible or you’re living in a fictional land where there are more than 24 hours in a day.

Be ruthless with this. What can move onto your Do Later list? What can wait until next week, next month, next year? Even better, what can you completely get rid of?

By taking the time to look at your priorities and time commitments, and by moving or removing as much as you can that is not aligned with your current agenda, you will step out of overwhelm, take care of your mental, emotional and physical well-being, and give more to the tasks and projects that really matter.

Less Really Is More

Less projects, more outcomes.

Less busyness, more productivity.

Less overwhelm, more peace.

Less saying yes, more boundaries.

Mostly, we are the ones who put the things on our to-do list, in one form or another. Take back control of your day and agenda. And take back your energy while you’re at it.

Remember...Stop and breathe, walk away, and refocus. You are in control. You get to choose. And you can start right now.

advertisement
More from Megan Dalla-Camina
More from Psychology Today
More from Megan Dalla-Camina
More from Psychology Today