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Feeling Overwhelmed: 6 Practical Ways to Deal With Overwhelm

feeling overwhelmed

Overwhelm is the feeling that you have too much to do, and too little time to do it.

Being overwhelmed is feeling that you have a million things to do, and that you’ll never be able to get them all done, no matter how fast you go. It’s like the cartoon of the dam that springs a leak. You know the one:

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  • The dam springs a leak, so the cartoon character plugs it up with his right hand’s index finger.
  • But then the dam springs another leak, so the character plugs it up with his other index finger.
  • That’s when a third leak appears, which is plugged up with the character’s right toe.
  • Then the fourth leak is plugged up with the character’s left toe.
  • And that’s when the sixth and the seventh leaks appear. But the character has no more hands or feet left to plug them up with.

Doesn’t life feel that way sometimes? I know mine does. However, I’ve collected strategies that I apply when I feel overwhelmed, which I’m going to share with you. Below you’ll find 6 things to do to deal with overwhelm.

1. Interrupt the Overwhelm

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. She recommends that, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you use your senses to ground yourself in the present moment. This will allow you to interrupt the overwhelm.

Hendricks indicates that you should use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method to work through your five senses. Do the following:

  • Look around and name five things you can see. I see my silver bracelet, a box of Kleenex, my sunglasses, a jar filled with colored pencils, and my nephew’s photo pinned up on my bulletin board.
  • Listen and name four things you can hear. I can hear construction sounds, the humming of my laptop, a car horn, and my neighbor whistling in the hallway.
  • List three things you can touch. I can feel warmth when I touch my coffee mug, cold when I touch the glass of water sitting on my desk, and the feeling of my feet in my shoes.
  • Notice two smells. I’m smelling an orange peel and witch hazel.
  • Taste something. I just took a sip of coffee.

By grounding yourself in the present moment you interrupt the spinning thoughts that lead to overwhelm, and you give yourself a mini-moment of mindfulness. This is very helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

2. Declutter Your Immediate Surroundings

If your immediate surroundings are cluttered you can be sure that this is contributing to your feelings of overwhelm. Clutter affects you negatively in the following ways:

  • It bombards the senses with visual stimuli, even if you’re not consciously aware of it.
  • Clutter distracts our focus from what we should be concentrating on.
  • Being surrounded by clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.
  • Clutter creates an open loop in your mind, so you always have a vague feeling that there’s something important that you forgot to do.

By decluttering your immediate surroundings you’ll reduce your stress levels and feel calmer. That is, you’ll be less overwhelmed.

For me, decluttering my immediate surroundings often means tidying up my desk. I just took my empty coffee mug to the kitchen, filed a few papers, put some books back on the shelf, and stuck a couple of pens back in the pen jar. I’m feeling less overwhelmed already. 😊

3. Identify Your Major Stressors

Sit down, take out a piece of paper and a pen, and make a list of the top stressors in your life. Ask yourself: “What is making me feel overwhelmed right now?”

Once you have your list, assign each item on your list a percentage from 1 to 100 that reflects the degree to which that item is contributing to your feelings of overwhelm.

Here’s an illustration:

  • Every time I walk into my home I feel stressed by the amount of stuff that I’ve accumulated and all the time and effort it takes to clean and take care of it. (25%)
  • I lack the computer skills to be able to do my job well. (20%)
  • I have to keep track of my kids’ many activities. (10%)
  • The commute to and from work is horrendous (10%)
  • My spouse and I have been disagreeing more than usual lately. (5%)
  • My mom can’t take care of herself anymore and I have to find a way to help her with this. (30%).

Then, draw a pie chart that contains all the data above. This will quickly allow you to see what is making you feel overwhelmed. In addition, you’ll be able to identify what you need to tackle first. Here’s a pie chart of the situation I just described above:

feeling overwhelmed

As you can see from the pie chart, once you figure out how you can help your mother, almost a third of your feelings of overwhelm should be gone.

Then, you can focus on decluttering and organizing your home, and more than half of the stressors that are making you feel overwhelmed will have been taken care of. Continue going down the list until you feel that you have things under control.

4. Make Things Easier On Yourself

The other day I was going through my Twitter stream and I saw a tweet go by that caught my attention. It was by a lady named Susan Wright who had written a blog post explaining what reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes had taught her about achieving her goals.

In the blog post she explains that she had set the goal of reading Don Quixote from cover to cover, in Spanish. However, she was procrastinating on the goal because it made her feel overwhelmed. Here’s why:

  • She lived in Puerto Rico for a few years as a child and spoke some Spanish, but Don Quixote is a very difficult novel written in the 17th century, and it would take a lot of work for her to read it in Spanish.
  • Don Quixote is a very long book—in fact, it’s two books—and she didn’t feel that she could devote that much time to reading.

What she ended up doing was to re-write her goal in order to make things easier on herself. Here’s what she did:

  • First, she decided she would read the book in English.
  • And, second, she would set aside some time to read the book each day, but she would also listen to parts of the book while she was running errands or commuting to and from work. That would allow her to get through the book faster.

By doing these two things the goal of reading Don Quixote no longer seemed so overwhelming, and she was able to achieve her goal.

While doing the research for this post I came across a YouTube video by author Tim Ferriss, in which he explains that we have a tendency to think that anything worth doing has to be hard. In addition, we’re usually trying to impress others with our amazing feats of prowess.

However, life doesn’t have to be so hard. The next time you’re working on a task, ask yourself the question Ferriss always asks himself: “What would this look like if it where easy?” Once you’ve identified how you can make things easier for yourself, do it.

Lessen your feelings of overwhelm by asking yourself how you can make your tasks more doable and your goals easier to achieve.Click To Tweet

5. Take Things One Tiny Step At a Time

Once you’ve re-written your to do list in a way that makes things easier for yourself, start tackling your list one item at a time. Just take it tiny task by tiny task. When your brain starts thinking of all the things that you have to do and feelings of overwhelm once again wash over you, bring your focus back to the task at hand.

Right now, that tiny little task is all there is. How can you possibly feel overwhelmed by such a small task?

6. Take Steps to Lessen Anxiety

Your brain may be contributing to your feelings of overwhelm. Some personality types are more likely to feel overwhelmed than others, and anxious people are at the top of that list.

After all, the brains of anxious people release more cortisol and adrenaline than the brains of people who tend to remain calm, even when they have lots to do.

I’m an anxious person, and I’ve discovered that by taking steps to reduce my anxiety I can better deal with anything that may be going on in my life at any given moment. That is, I can control the feelings of overwhelm.

Here are the three steps I take to reduce my anxiety fast:

  • I put some jojoba oil in the palm of my hand, I add a few drops of lavender oil, and then I rub the oil on my arms. There are studies that show that lavender essential oil helps to lessen feelings of anxiety.
  • Green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps reduce stress and relaxes your mind and body. When I feel anxious I make myself some Yogi Tea Kombucha Green Tea with honey and lemon. It always helps me feel better.
  • I blow bubbles (yes, you read that right). Why? Because when you’re anxious your heart beat speeds up. But you can slow it down with your breath by making your exhale longer and slower than your inhale. Also, you can imagine that your anxiety is floating away with the bubbles.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, dealing with anxiety will go a long way toward helping you to feel calmer and more serene.


Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t have to be your default state. There are lots of things you can do to feel more calm and relaxed– start with the six strategies I explain above. Live your best life by dealing effectively with feelings of overwhelm.


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