6 things to do when you’re overwhelmed

I’m no stranger to feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes it feels like that’s the defining characteristic of my life: so much to do, so little time in which to do it, and no idea where to start untangling the mess of commitments and tasks and stressors looming over me.

The last few weeks have been all of that on overdrive. My anxiety has been higher than usual these days. With the recent reappearance of panic attacks and chronic fatigue in my daily life, I’ve been forced to accept the fact that I need to slow down, to give my body space to recover.

And then, on top of that, came COVID-19.

I work in an elementary school in Washington State, where all K-12 public and private schools have been closed by executive order from the governor until April 27. For several days, I didn’t know if my school would close or not. When it became apparent that it would, I didn’t know how long it would be closed. I didn’t know if I’d still have to go to work or if I’d be allowed to work from home or if there would even be work to do from home. Even today, I’m unable to plan more than a day ahead because I just don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Many of you are facing similar uncertainty right now. Events you’d planned on attending are canceled, sometimes at the last minute. Routines are disrupted: you’re working from home when you usually don’t, or your kids are home when they’re usually not. Many of us are also planning for potential quarantines in case someone in our family becomes infected by COVID-19. Maybe we’ll need to quarantine, maybe we won’t. We just don’t know.

I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now—whether it’s because of COVID-19 or something completely unrelated—whatever the reason, you are not alone. Overwhelm is common, anxiety is a normal human emotion, and all of us will at some point or another end up right here: in over our heads, with no idea how to break out of the cycle of worry and stress we’ve slipped into.

Full disclosure: I don’t have a magic cure to end overwhelm once and for all. There’s no magic formula that will snap you out of a stressful or anxious season and no completely foolproof way to avoid ending up overwhelmed to begin with.

But I’ve been overwhelmed before. I’ve even been stuck in my house before for several weeks during the height of Nicaragua’s political unrest. I’ve been through anxiety during and after that experience. And along the way, I’ve picked up a few strategies that have helped me get through the more chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming times in my life.

In true bookworm fashion, most of these strategies have come out of books I’ve read or quotes I’ve encountered. This is far from a definitive guide, and to be honest, these suggestions probably won’t completely stop overwhelm in your life—but they usually help me feel a little more peaceful, a little more stable, and I’m willing to bet they’ll probably help you too. So if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed today, go ahead and give these tips a try.

1. Get dressed.

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

When I say “get dressed,” I don’t just mean “change out of your pajamas”—although I wholeheartedly recommend you do so. I’m suggesting you go one step beyond that and wear something that makes you feel good about yourself.

What we wear affects how we perceive ourselves. One writer puts it this way: “When we put on a piece of clothing we cannot help but adopt some of the characteristics associated with it, even if we are unaware of it.” This effect holds true to such an extent that research suggests the way we dress impacts how well we work.

I first discovered this concept when I had depression in my late teens. Taking the time to wear something that made me look presentable and feel somewhat put-together signaled to my brain that my life was worth getting dressed for. It boosted my confidence: it made me feel that no matter what came up during the day, I was ready for it.

When you’re overwhelmed, you need that confidence boost. I’m not suggesting you dress at the height of fashion every morning (unless you really want to), and I certainly don’t recommend you spend a ton of extra time on your wardrobe when you already have a lot on your plate. But taking an extra minute or two to choose clothes that make you feel good about yourself can make a huge difference.

2. Make tea.

“Er—shall I make a cup of tea?” said Ron.

Harry stared at him.

“It’s what my mum does whenever someone’s upset,” Ron muttered, shrugging.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Hear me out: it doesn’t have to be tea. Maybe coffee is more your thing. Or hot chocolate. Or maybe you love apples or pretzels or chocolate chip cookies. The point is to do something that you find instantly comforting.

But—and this is key—your comforting thing can’t keep you from doing whatever it is you need to be doing right now, especially if part of your overwhelm is due to the “too much to do, too little time” dilemma. Self-care strategies that postpone dealing with the cause of your overwhelm only end up making the problem worse in the long run.

For me, tea automatically makes me feel better. It takes less than five minutes to make a cup and I can drink it while I’m working. Find your version of a cup of tea, and take a few minutes to enjoy it today.

3. Focus on the wins.

“He is well paid that is well satisfied.”
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1, line 413)

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1, line 413

When you’re overwhelmed, your first instinct is to focus on everything you think you “should” be doing differently and everything you’re not doing as well as you’d hoped.

Listen to me closely: ruminating on where you think you fall short just makes you feel more overwhelmed at the thought of all you have left to do. Worse than that, it makes you feel hopeless about ever getting past this season of your life.

Take a few moments to remind yourself of everything you’ve done well over the past week or month. Maybe you haven’t accomplished everything you planned to—but think of how many times you got out of bed; you got dressed; you washed your dishes; you made someone smile.

Celebrate those wins, no matter how small they seem. There may be challenges ahead of you still, but you’ve conquered so many already.

4. Lower your expectations.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

When I get overwhelmed, it’s often because I’m expecting myself to do or be more than I realistically can be. If you’re having trouble identifying your wins, it could be because your expectations for yourself are too high.

When I moved to the States nearly two years ago, I expected myself to be always calm and organized, to work systematically from a neat to-do list, and to write a book over the summer so I could start building my career as a writer.

Needless to say, that did not happen. What did happen was that I felt like a failure for not living up to expectations that were, frankly, ridiculously unrealistic. My expectations left no room to spend time with people I love, no room to process the trauma I had been through, no room to grieve the sudden loss of everything that had felt familiar and safe.

Even now, I find myself expecting to accomplish a laundry list of to-dos on my days off work, ignoring the fact that stressful circumstances such as these demand energy, too. I’m not going to be perfect, and I’m not going to accomplish ten hours of work in six. If I’m expecting myself to be superhuman, I’m going to be disappointed every time.

A year and a half ago, I learned to let go of those unrealistic expectations, and I immediately started to feel a little less overwhelmed. I need to do that again today—and maybe you do, too.

5. Do just one thing.

“It does people good to have to do things they don’t like…in moderation.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

It’s important to do things you find comforting. It’s healthy to focus on your wins. It’s valuable to let go of unrealistic expectations. But while it’s important not to expect yourself to do more than you can do, it’s also perfectly reasonable (and healthy!) to expect yourself to get something done today, no matter how overwhelmed you feel.

Trying to power through a mountain of challenging tasks and projects can lead to burnout, which leads to more overwhelm in the long run. At the same time, however, when we don’t accomplish any of the things we need to do, our overwhelm just continues to grow. Even though you may not feel like doing a lot of the things on your to-do list, it is an act of self-care to continue to make progress on those things.

My advice to get stuff done without getting overwhelmed is this: just do one thing. Pick one task you have to accomplish and finish it. Now celebrate! You accomplished something; count it as a win.

And now—pick another task. Don’t worry about the rest of the to-do list: just focus on that one thing until it’s done. No matter how much or how little you accomplish today, you’re making progress; you’re moving forward. Keep at it—and be sure to take some time along the way to make another cup of tea.

6. Look at the big picture.

“I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I first published this post a year and a half ago. At the time, the challenges I was facing felt insurmountable. I felt so overwhelmed by everything that was going on that I couldn’t see how I would ever make it out of the rut I’d fallen into.

But, of course, I did. And looking back, I can see that the struggles that seemed unending back then were just temporary. They lasted for a season, and then they lessened. The pressure lifted; I got my feet under me again; I moved on.

Maybe you feel overwhelmed or anxious today. And maybe your obstacles feel unbeatable, just as mine did. Maybe you feel like this season of your life will never end.

But, of course, it will. And I can tell you from personal experience that the experience of facing overwhelm and overcoming it will make you a better, healthier version of yourself.

Think of the perseverance you build by getting up and getting dressed even when things are hard. Think of the compassion you develop when you learn to treat yourself with kindness instead of criticism. Just picture the resilience you are developing by focusing on your wins instead of your failures, the healthy perspective you’re cultivating by learning to lower your expectations and set manageable goals each day.

These things, these intangible qualities you’re developing, last forever. They form the person you are becoming, and they equip you to handle the seasons of overwhelm you’ll face in the future. The things I learned a year and a half ago are helping me navigate this new challenge, still imperfectly, but in a much healthier and gentler way than I did last time.

Today might bend and break us—but may tomorrow find us in a better shape.

originally published September 21, 2018
updated March 17, 2020

How do you handle feeling overwhelmed? Share your tips and other thoughts in the comments.

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