December 16

Five Simple Strategies to Tackle the Overwhelm

Jane Wagner said “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.” Sad, but true. Dreaming about a stress-free life is like hoping for our national debt to be paid off. It’s not going to happen. What we can do instead is to adopt some simple strategies to tackle the overwhelm.

Alright, be honest with why you are reading this article (or maybe just this sentence):

  • You are happy and content with life today and are simply reading for pleasure, or you are a loyal reader of this blog (Have I told you how much I appreciate you?)
  • Your to-do list is a mile long and you have no control of it anymore and if we’re being frank, you cannot even begin to fathom how to tackle the overwhelm. So, you’re on to the next best thing—scrolling through your social media feed. Maybe the title of this article intrigued you and so you’re here to check out what the hoopla is all about.

The feeling of overwhelm

Based on my completely unscientific polling, I’ll say over 80% of readers are in category (b). Especially at this time of the year. As the days shorten and the year draws to a close, it seems like our commitments and projects—both to ourselves and others—are ever-increasing and never ending. And at times like this, it’s easy not just to get overwhelmed but to feel guilty and stressed about what we aren’t able to do.

One way to cope with the overwhelm of having too much to do is by deciding not to do any of it. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? But I’m told it only works if you are 3-years-old or younger. Because, as most of you probably have realized by now, we adults can’t just wish away our responsibilities. But it need not be all doom and gloom. There are tried and tested ways to tackle the overwhelm. Here are five practical ones:

1. Be compassionate. To yourself.

Yes, you had the right intention when you bought all those supplies to make homemade laundry soap as holiday gifts. But sometimes life gets in the way and you end up ordering last minute Amazon e-gift cards. It’s okay to go easy on yourself. Empathy is an impressive skill to practice, but self-empathy—the ability to be kind to ourselves—can be a great antidote to feeling overwhelmed.

Our culture has somehow drilled into us that if we aren’t hard on ourselves, we’ll get lazy and self-indulgent. But research has proven quite the contrary. Increased self-compassion  increases overall wellbeing.

2. The body knows before the brain does.

Our limbic systems are designed to ensure our survival. It is where our emotional responses are stored. That is why the sight of an unleashed dog on a run startles me, with my heart racing and my limbs stiffening even before my brain can register a potential threat.

However, constantly activating the fight-or-flight response can lead to accumulated emotional stress and the feeling of overwhelm. There’s a way out, though. Through mindfulness.

If we can simply pay attention to our bodies and the signals it sends, we can learn to respond by taking a few deep, calming breaths. The breath, in turn, lets the brain know that all’s well and that we aren’t going to get eaten up by metaphorical lions.

3. Move it.

There is no way to say this delicately, but if your spirit animal is a couch potato, then it’s time to look for a substitute. I can harp on forever about the important of exercise, but here’s the fact: Exercise may or may not give you your dream physique, but it certainly can do wonders for your mental health.

You’ve probably heard the term exercise-induced endorphins. While endorphins get all the credit, it’s not really the endorphins but other neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin that actually make you feel better. Low levels of these hormones are associated with depression. Consistent exercise makes your body learn how to react to stress and keeps these hormones in balance.

4. Do "one" thing that matters.

It’s easy to want to do it all, and end up doing nothing. Overwhelm is almost inevitable if you always try to major in minor things. Setting priorities, learning to distinguish between the urgent and important, and giving yourself the permission to focus on just the major things can help immensely.

We want to be everywhere doing everything because it’s been drilled into our heads that opportunity comes knocking once. Above all, to tackle the overwhelm, the most important step is to gain perspective on what truly matters in life and then accepting that we can never completely get through everything on our list regardless of how long we live.

5. Say “No”

Everyone likes to be liked. More often than not, our fear of rejection or sounding rude makes us say yes when we really mean to say no. But saying yes and then having a mild panic attack isn’t helpful. We can tackle the overwhelm when we learn to say no more often.


In her book Bossypants, comedienne Tina Fey writes:

“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

So when you feel blorft, just remind yourself that life does not have to be filled with days of outward smiles and inner screams. Give yourself permission to say no, and to be okay with not dotting every i and crossing every t.

We can tackle the overwhelm. We just need to gain some perspective.



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