How to Handle Overwhelm

You know those bad days (or weeks) where it feels like everything goes wrong at once?

Your computer dies, your kids get sick, you lose your phone, the project you were working on translates to Chinese and won’t revert?

Deadlines, trying to keep all the balls in the air, trying to please everyone and make ends meet can take its toll, and some days it’s harder than others to keep a calm head on your shoulders.

What often happens when too much is lumped on our plate is a feeling of intense overwhelm. It can happen when you have a big task to do, like moving house or packing your bags for an overseas trip, or when something doesn’t work out how you planned or deadlines are looming.

When overwhelm hits it can be stressful not to mention unproductive. All of a sudden you feel frozen to the spot, not able to think straight to take the next step. For some people overwhelm triggers feelings of explosive anger, for others, a waterfall of tears, complete panic and for some a quiet retreat from being around anyone.

There is a way through this. However you react when you hit that sense of overwhelm, know that there is a safe and effective path you can take to get through a spot of trouble quickly and easily and get back on track.

  1. Be in the present moment

All that stress and anxiety is caused by one thing, you’re thinking too far ahead. Your mind projects out to the future, of “How am I going to get this finished by next week???!!” “What will that mean for my day off tomorrow?” “If I don’t get to sleep right now I’ll be exhausted at work”. All those future thoughts create turmoil. To be truthful, you have no idea what will happen in the future, it could be anything. Often our mind chooses the worse possible scenario as if to prepare us, however, it very rarely turns out that way and all that anxiety was for nothing. When we leave the future alone and focus on the present moment, the feeling of overwhelm instantly falls away. In the here and now there is nothing to be worried about, everything is as it should be.

Clearing your mind of all the possible things coming allows us to prioritise our tasks quickly and easily and get moving again. Even better, you can enjoy the moment you are in and get more satisfaction out of living.

So how do you get your mind to stop jumping to the future and forecasting and predicting things that will stress you out?

The answer is to rely on your senses. The five basic senses we are born with can only function in the present moment, any time you think about your immediate surrounds, you bring your mind back to what matters most.


You might not feel like eating something but if you do, chew very slowly and notice not only the taste of the food in your mouth, but also how it changes as you eat.


This can be anything from noticing the different textures of the clothes you are wearing, the seat you are sitting on, maybe the carpet or grass between your toes. You can hold an object, especially one with shifting textures, like a bean toy. You can also engage feeling by counting your teeth with your tongue and noticing the touch and texture.


Stop and consider what you can smell. Your perfume or aftershave, flowers, carpet or your pet. Maybe brew a coffee or tea and inhale that nice fresh scent.


Pay close attention to the space around you and notice colours, shades of colour, shapes and patterns.


White noise is a great way to calm your thoughts. Trance music or nature sounds can help still our mind and focus on one thing at a time.

The best way to experience the five senses is to get outside and be in nature. If nothing else, go for a walk around the block and really connect with the things that you pass.

  1. Breathe

Even though we have been breathing regularly our entire lives we can forget this very simple thing when we are overwhelmed.

Take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out through your mouth. Count the number of seconds it takes to breathe in, then exhale more slowly. So if you breathe in for three seconds, breathe out for five.

  1. Write a list

When all your to-do items are jumbled in your head it can make the problem much bigger than reality. Write a list of everything you are thinking about, then put that list into the order of things that need to be done now, things that can wait, things that can be given to other people to do and things that don’t matter. Once you have your list do ONE thing on that list and nothing else. Turn off your phone, shut your office door, whatever you need to do to complete one task at a time.

*Writing a list and getting your tasks down on paper is a great one for doing if you are stressed at night and can’t get to sleep. You’ll nod off in no time and your list will be ready for you when you are fresh in the morning.

  1. Put boundaries in place

If you are taking on too much the only way to get back to a manageable level is to set boundaries and say what you need. Need some space, need five minutes to think, need a lie-down? Do those things and let the people around you know what’s going on. It’s up to you to decide the limits you take and communicate effectively to the people around you. Don’t secretly hope no one will bug you or ask you for assistance, let them know, “Hey, I’m at my limit here, can we do this some other time?”

  1. Be kind to yourself

Your harshest critique is your inner voice. It doesn’t need to be so severe. Chances are that level of perfection and even those deadlines have been put in place by yourself. Striving for perfection is a sure way of stressing yourself out. It doesn’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to fulfil everyone’s demands and life will go on if you break a couple of those restricting rules you’ve put on yourself.

Often people find when they are doing meditation or practising mindfulness that those internal thoughts and judgements pop up so they think they are doing it incorrectly. Instead of silencing that voice just acknowledge the thoughts or feelings that pass your way without labelling them as good or bad or judging yourself or anyone else with them.

When you meet a goal or complete a task, stop and congratulate yourself. Have a rest before jumping to the next thing.

And remember that every mistake you make is just an opportunity to learn to improve.

Everybody is doing the very best they can with the resources they have available to them, including you!

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