What to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious

In our busy lives, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, making it hard to keep things in perspective. The key to coping when you're feeling overwhelmed is to take small steps and give yourself time

Woman feeling overwhelmed staring at a sunset

Overwhelm can feel all-consuming, taking over our lives, draining our energy and distorting our perspective. Left unchecked it can also lead to burnout. So how can we recognise when it’s building and what can we do to ease it?

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Overwhelm can be tricky to recognise because what it looks and feels like can vary. It can show up as a lack of focus, an inability to know what to do next. It can feel like everything is insurmountable so there’s no point in trying and your overriding urge is to hide under the duvet. It can take the form of tiredness, irritability, a lack of patience or empathy. It can seem like everyone has expectations of you, there’s not enough time and it’s all too much. It’s when life becomes a struggle and it feels like you’re wading through thick mud, under water, in high heels, with a piano strapped to your back.

When we’re overwhelmed it’s hard to keep things in perspective and our thinking can become black and white. Overwhelm can make us feel like we’re the worst friend, that the kids are feral, our boss thinks we’re incompetent, our life is falling apart and it’s more than we can cope with. No one is immune to overwhelm, we all experience it, and yet when we’re in the thick of overwhelm we think we’re the only ones feeling this way. We pile on the ‘shoulds’, telling ourselves we should be able to manage. We compare and berate ourselves, which only piles on the pressure and makes us feel far worse. And yet it isn’t our fault that we’re overwhelmed.

As women we have grown up in a culture and society that tells us we need to be helpful and selfless, to put others’ needs before our own, and that rewards us for being amenable, obliging, ‘good’ girls. We’re told that we can have it all – the relationship, the family, the career and the social life. From childhood we see the women in our lives (who learned from the women in their lives) taking on the caring role, the mental load, striving to meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone happy, rarely resting because ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’…

This conditioning teaches us that we should be able to do all the things, please everyone, all the time, with a smile on our face. And so, when we can’t, because it’s not possible, we become overwhelmed and feel like we’re failing at life. When we’ve been the reliable, responsible one who has it all under control we feel the weight of expectation weighing heavy on our shoulders to look, act, or feel a certain way. We don’t want to disappoint anyone because that would mean we’re a bad person.

If you’re a mum, you might find yourself striving to be the perfect parent – ferrying your kids to and from school and activities, helping out with homework, making them nourishing meals, dealing with sibling squabbles – all the while comparing yourself to other mums and beating yourself up for doing a terrible job. At work you may think you ought to go in early, leave late, answer emails immediately, keep up the façade of being in total control and never ask for help. When you complete a project you don’t stop to celebrate because you’re straight on to what’s next on the to-do list. And all the while money – having enough, earning enough, how you spend it, the student debt you may have accumulated, monthly bills as well as the gender pay gap – can be an ever-present worry.

Woman sitting on a beach feeling overwhelmed
Unsplash/Rebe Pascual

How to deal with feeling overwhelmed

So, how can we stop feeling overwhelmed? The very first action to take is to ask yourself what you need right now, in this moment. Not what should you do or what someone else wants you to do, but what you need right now. It could be to stop and take a few deep breaths in and out. Or to drink a glass of water, phone a friend or go for a walk.

Next, check in with how you’ve been meeting your basic needs recently by asking yourself a few questions: What have I been eating and drinking? How have I been sleeping? When did I last connect (properly, not just in the same room) with someone I love? When did I last have some time for myself to do what I enjoy? Fuelling yourself with caffeine or sugar, disturbed sleep, a lack of real human connection and no time spent doing what makes you feel good allows overwhelm to take hold.

Think of one step you can take to address the imbalance, even if it’s just in one area, and then do it. When even our basic needs aren’t met it’s difficult to cope with all the other demands on our minds, bodies and emotions – so commit to taking one step to move you forward out of overwhelm.

By taking action you’re taking back some control so that overwhelm is no longer completely ruling your life. Then you’re better able to look at what, specifically, is feeling overwhelming and what you can start to do about it. By recognising you have too much on your plate because you think you have to say yes to every request, you can begin to honour your boundaries by politely, and firmly, saying no. Whether that’s to a relative, the PTA or a colleague. You’re not obliged to provide a lengthy explanation and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad, uncaring, selfish person. It simply means that you have a finite amount of time and energy.

Acknowledging that you need help and asking for it is an indicator of strength, not weakness. Look at where you need support to bring down the overwhelm so you can feel calmer and more in control. Perhaps it’s talking to a financial advisor to get a handle on your money worries. Maybe it’s making a date with your partner to open up about how you feel. It could be as practical as setting up an email auto-message to manage expectations, or sharing school pick-ups with other parents.

Trying to tackle overwhelm on your own and all at once is, well, overwhelming. So start by acknowledging how you feel, asking for support and identifying small steps you can take to help you gently back to calm.

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Featured image by Unsplash/Vlad Gedroics.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 37. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy individual issues online.