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How to Banish Feelings of Overwhelm

2013 March 22

Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all, or by having everything happen all at once. ~Paul Coelho

Banish OverwhelmHave you ever felt like life was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you – all at the same time? I think everyone has experienced the feeling of overwhelm at some point, and for that moment in time, all that matters is to somehow find a way out of the turmoil.

Unfortunately, all too often what happens is we either end up stalled, simmering in our own frustration and stress; or we start doing anything and everything just to create movement, without considering whether the actions we’re taking will improve the situation or not.

The reality is your feeling of overwhelm is not about the number of tasks on your plate, it’s about conflicting emotions, and your inability – for that moment – to see what course of action to take. This is why effectively resolving overwhelm requires first taking a step back and letting go of the struggle within you.

Banishing Overwhelm Begins with Self Awareness

Find a quiet spot for a few minutes of solitude.

Before you can begin to resolve feelings of overwhelm you need to shift your mood by breaking the grip of tension and stress – find your center and calm your nerves. This can be challenging to do once you are already feeling overwhelmed, but it’s pretty much impossible when you’re surrounded by the noise of everyday life and constant interruptions. Make the time to find a quiet spot for some thoughtful solitude. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, let the tension gradually flow out of you with each exhale.

What’s really going on?

Once you’ve reached a calmer frame of mind, think about what’s really causing you to feel overwhelmed. The easy answer is ‘Too much to do!” but emotions are what trigger feelings of overwhelm, so it’s important to try and identify what action or event brought you to this point.

Create a list of priorities.

Next make a list of what tasks and commitments await your attention. As you work on your list check your gut reaction to each item – if there is anything on that list that creates anxiety just thinking about it, you need to take a closer look at why.

Asking yourself questions is also a powerful way to uncover internal conflicts. For example, are there really too many things to do, or is it that there are things on the list you really don’t want to do? Have you’ve committed to something because you thought you should, but now regret that decision? Or maybe the trouble maker is one big project that has been weighing heavily over your head, and suddenly realizing the deadline is looming triggered your feelings of overwhelm. Can the project be broken down into smaller tasks, or can you delegate or get extra help with some of the work? Finally, is there anything on your list you really don’t need to do? Maybe you’ve been reluctant to ask someone else to pitch in at home, or maybe you just been doing some things so long they’ve become habit.

Once you’ve taken a closer look at the  items on your list, it’s time to prioritize them. This sounds like the easy part, but more often than we realize, when we’re anxious to get rid of a task – or if someone is making a lot of noise about getting it done – that alone will make it a priority in our mind, when in fact it may not be that important at all.

When I was 20-something … I walked into my boss’s office and told him that I felt like on any given day I was facing a tsunami of things I could pay attention to, and there was no way I could work any harder to make stuff happen. I was asking for more resources, as the answer. He sat me down as he might one of his kids and gave me this advice: Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys.

Feed the Eagles. There are only a few things that matter. Know what they are. And place your energy into them. They aren’t always right in front of you so you need to look up and out more. Starve the Turkeys – lots of things are right in front of you … pecking around, making noise, and demanding attention. Because they are right in front of you, it’s easy to pay attention to them most and first. Ignore them. They will actually do fine without you. ~Nilofer Merchant, Founder of Rubicon Consulting

Take Action

Once your list of priorities is set it’s time to take action on the top priority. It doesn’t really matter how small the task or the action is… this is simply about starting to get things done and out of the way. Your goal now is to build momentum. Once you have momentum, it becomes easier and easier to start on the next task on your list.

Be sure to occasionally stop and recognize your progress. This is an important step to begin feeling that you are back in control of your life.

Prevent Future Overwhelm by Becoming More Self Aware

Successfully working through a period of overwhelm is an invaluable opportunity to become more self aware. Self awareness can’t be learned from a book, it is a continual learning process developed by becoming clear about who you are and what really matters to you, your values, and how you relate to the world. These things can only be learned by being fully present in the moment.

How about you? Have you ever experienced feelings of overwhelm? Did you learn any valuable insight in the process of working through the situation?


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22 Responses
  1. May 31, 2013

    I really needed this today. I have been overwhelmed lately… It’s my fault really… I thought planning a wedding, moving and starting a new job all at the same time would be no problem, but it is catching up with me… I really like the “feed the eagles, starve the turkey” quote. I am going to start prioritizing now and make it happen. Thank you!

  2. March 31, 2013

    It happens to the best of us. It’s so easy to drown in the nitty gritty details of life’s daily activities. The 80/20 rule always helps me. When I am calm enough to rationalize everything, I list down all these things that “overwhelm” me. Then I identify those 20% that will produce 80% of the results if I prioritize them. That way, I only concentrate on the few most important things that would generate the most accomplishments. The rest on the list can either wait a few more days to be attended to while others simply die a natural death (which all the more proves they were not worrying at all in the first place).

  3. March 31, 2013

    To perish the thought of being overwhelmed, you need a serious timeout. One of the main reasons why people feel overwhelmed because of their many responsibilities and tasks is that they think too much of all the time and energy they have to spend and exert to accomplish those tasks and at least not die from doing it. Stop, take several calming breaths and trust that everything will be okay eventually.

  4. March 28, 2013

    Hi Marty,
    I enjoyed reading your post as always. Actually it become my moment of calm and solitude because I felt overwhelmed by the end of the week. I totally agree with you that taking a short break and carefully thinking what really makes us feel overwhelmed is the best solution to most problems.

  5. March 28, 2013

    I usually take a few calming breaths and of course I try to calm down. Being overwhelmed can cause you a lot of stress, now if you don’t know how to get around it or how to deal with it, then you’ll succumb to potential illness. Trust me, I’ve been there, done that. Overwhelming can be tiring and it will take toll on your health seriously.
    Kristine recently posted..Inspiration for two landscape designers at the Rainforest RetreatMy Profile

  6. March 26, 2013

    Hi Marty! I had to laugh when I read Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys! I have 25 turkeys in my back yard everyday and I would like to starve those pesky birds, they eat everything in site.

    Now back to Overwhelm! I attended an event last spring and the speaker was talking about this very subject and he asked a very good question. Would be rather be underwhelmed?

    Now think about this, what does underwhelm bring Nothing Right! So the next time you are over whelmed think about this and Of course then use this time to prioritize what you really need to get done first and so forth.. Great Article Thanks for sharing Chery :)
    Chery Schmidt recently posted..Be Ok With Who You Are And Where You Are NowMy Profile

    • March 27, 2013

      Wow, and I thought I had it bad with the feral chickens and roosters we have here … anyway, I would love to have been in that workshop with you because it would have been fun debating the pros and cons of over vs underwhelm. The thing is, more often than not overwhelm also ends up stalling people – except that it also comes along with a boatload of stress. Regardless, both circumstances require setting priorities and cultivating a new mindset. Thanks so much for taking the time to share – always happy to see you here :-)
      Marquita Herald recently posted..One to Ten – How Committed Are You?My Profile

  7. March 25, 2013

    Great ways to prevent the overwhelming feelings we have… we need to grab some solitude to gather our thoughts and then convert the worthy thoughts into tangible actions. An important thing to do in life! Thanks. Jon
    Jon Mertz recently posted..Five Practices to Enhance Your Problem-Solving MindsetMy Profile

  8. March 24, 2013

    I’ve sent to Kindle :) this is a post I will come back to time and time again – simply because I frequently feel overwhelmed. I am learning to say no, and set boundaries though, albeit 20 years too late.
    Sarah Arrow recently posted..Are you sending blog posts to Kindle?My Profile

    • March 25, 2013

      Cool beans Sarah! I was so excited to learn about that Kindle plugin – I hope more bloggers will take advantage of it because I love the idea of capturing great content this way. So glad you enjoyed the article :-)
      Marquita Herald recently posted..How to Banish Feelings of OverwhelmMy Profile

  9. March 24, 2013

    Hi Marquita, great post as ever…would you agree too that having good boundaries is essential to stop overwhelm…? Sarupa x

    • March 25, 2013

      Welcome Sarupa, you are so right, boundaries are very important. At the same time overwhelm is also about lack of priorities and our inability – for a time – to effectively use the boundaries we’ve created.
      Marquita Herald recently posted..How to Banish Feelings of OverwhelmMy Profile

  10. March 23, 2013

    I loved the “Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys” story – What a great way to remind yourself to focus on what is important.

    We’re all so busy that it’s easy to get caught up with the “Turkeys” and let your “Eagles” drift. I’ve put a post-it note right on my computer to remind me everyday .

    Thanks for a great post.
    Marty Diamond recently posted..Do You Need Both SEO and CRO?My Profile

  11. March 23, 2013

    love this topic because I am overwhelm at all times and at the same time I am not… simple explanation: I am overwhelm because I take on to much and to many tasks along my pathway of life… I have hard time say “no”.

    Then on the other hand, I am not overwhelm at any time because when I sense (I have this internal sensor that loves me a lot :-) that I have it up to my chin… it means that I need to stop doing what ever it is that I am doing and go meditate… while in meditation my body, mind and spirit will balance everything and some how once I am out of it (sometime a few minutes and sometime hours) I am refreshed and ready to continue or just quit and go for a walk or something else that does not require anything more than just for me to be there :-)

    I know this is not for every one.. and I can understand because we are all different.

    Thanks fro yet another great article very well researched and written.
    Nick Catricala recently posted..Spring is Here… What’s Your Plans?My Profile

  12. March 23, 2013

    Hi Marty,

    I am well familiar with the feeling of overwhelm. I stayed in that trap for years. What I found liberating for me is accepting that I would NEVER be able to do everything that is available for me to do…that I was never going to get caught up. Realizing that made me stop trying to get everything done. Of course, that means that I must consciously choose my activities based upon how it will affect my life and my desired results.
    Rachel Lavern recently posted..I Love My Home Business Tax DeductionsMy Profile

    • March 25, 2013

      Sounds like you’ve learned a lot about yourself Rachel. I have to admit I take a little different spin on your approach – I acknowledge that I can’t do everything that is available to me … at the same time. And you are so right, it’s all about priorities :-)
      Marquita Herald recently posted..How to Banish Feelings of OverwhelmMy Profile

  13. March 23, 2013

    Sometimes, when I feel like I’ve had enough, I seek for comfort on food. I know it may sound unhealthy but this is one of my ways to banish the stress.
    Connor Harley recently posted..How to be a Good ConsultantMy Profile

    • March 23, 2013

      Hey Connor – I used to be the same way. I had that internal “I deserve this” banter down pat. I’ve worked hard to overcome that pattern – because you are right it isn’t healthy for many reasons, not just the food. The key to change is being intentional about finding something to take the place of that “reward” and for me that has been writing books. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, have a wonderful weekend :-)
      Marquita Herald recently posted..How to Banish Feelings of OverwhelmMy Profile

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