step-by-step guide for when you're feeling overwhelmed

There are a lot of things that can and need to be done to prevent the dreaded state of #overwhelmed.

To name just a few —

  • Setting boundaries (and saying "no" in general),
  • Sticking with a routine,
  • Staying organized,
  • Having good systems for task management,
  • Getting enough sleep

Some of those necessities are pretty lame (I love getting lots of sleep, but I don't love early bedtime), and others are kind of fun and interesting if you're a productivity and personal development dork like me.

But even when we have good practices in place, the truth is that there is no magic bullet of "if you do this, you'll never feel overwhelmed again!" 

Whether it's a new baby, a nasty virus, a family emergency, a nightmare co-worker, second trimester morning sickness, a big work deadline, or any other kind of unexpected curveball — shit happens that makes even the best laid Overwhelm Prevention Plans go to hell in a hand basket.

So if you're already in the thick of it, what do you do?

Of course, again there is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all advice, but below are a few important tips and reminders when you find yourself feeling like you're in the weeds on a Saturday night in your first waitressing gig.

1. Take 5...

...breaths, that is. Before anything else, you need to get the oxygen flowing with 5 deep, slow breaths. Make sure to breathe into your belly, not just high up ion your chest, and try to match the length of your inhale with the length of the exhale, pausing briefly before each exhale. This will start to immediately regulate your nervous system so you can think more clearly about the next steps to take.

2. Check in with what's “urgent” vs. what's “important.”

Very often, we get caught up in constantly responding to things that seem urgent, leaving little room for activities that are important for meeting our overall needs and goals. While some things that come up are legitimately urgent, many are just masquerading as such. Identify one thing that’s important that needs your attention today, and some of the “urgent” things you’ve been spending your time on that can probably wait (like batching your email checking to a few times a day and keeping it closed otherwise.)

3. Get some perspective.

Think of yourself at a time when you were clear-headed and on your game, when you were acting in accordance with your values — what really matters to you in life. What would that person do in your shoes right now? Sometimes when we feel like “I just don’t know,” perspective-taking can help us step into a “place of knowing” where we suddenly do know what we really need to do. It might help to also think of someone else you admire and consider what they might do in your shoes right now.

4. Focus on your “to be” list rather than your “to do” list for a bit.

Scanning your to-do list again can be yet another distraction or lead to more paralysis. Instead, think about what is needed right now on your “to be” list. Perhaps the current situation of overwhelm requires that you be patient, compassionate, or genuine? Think of a few words that go on your list right now, and remember these are just as critical as any “to do” items.

5. Decide on the next right action to take, and an initial game plan for the next few hours.

Given your responses above and the values that you’ll embody from #4, what actions can you realistically take to improve your situation of overwhelm in the next few minutes? (Perhaps it’s as simple as sending a quick email or text saying ,”Hey, I won’t be able to make the party tomorrow but look forward to seeing you soon.”) Once you’ve taken action on just a few of those immediate tasks, create a game plan for the next few hours. And be wary of getting overly ambitious with completing things — sometimes “ a real break” is a necessary item on the list!

What are your favorite practices and tips for dealing with overwhelm in the moment? 

//photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash


Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.