Photograph by Chris Benson
How do you cope with feeling overwhelmed? I asked this question to my community in the first post of my #MentalWellnessMondays series.
In our fast-paced, always-on, busy-glorifying society, it’s clear feeling overwhelmed is a universal struggle. So too is the self-inflicted pressure we put on ourselves. Perfectionism—defined as “as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations”—is officially on the rise. Our growing perfectionistic tendencies have also been identified as a key driver of depression and anxiety in millennials. As Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK, explains:
“Individuals who experience high functioning anxiety are often very driven, high achievers who set incredibly high standards for themselves. They can find themselves constantly striving for perfection in everything they turn their hand to.”
When we feel overwhelmed from both external and internal pressures, it’s like we’re signalling to our brain that our demands outweigh our resources. Our brain interprets this as danger, and we risk triggering the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ stress response. If it goes on long enough, we might start experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety (such as breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, headaches and IBS), as well as increasingly low mood and energy.
The key to preventing this is to develop our mental wellness skills.
Without mental wellness skills, we may find ourselves resorting to our natural instinct: to do nothing and withdraw (remember: it’s called the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response). Recognising our tendency to freeze is the first step in developing our helpful response strategy. Once we recognise we’re in the stress response, we can mindfully choose what we do next.
Insights from my community for how to stop feeling overwhelmed could be summarised into four key areas:
- The One-Focus Mindset
- The Can-Control Mindset
- Practising Relaxation
- Expressing Feelings
1) The One-Focus Mindset
Illustration by: @journey_to_wellness_
“I will breathe, focus on one task, drink tea and reflect in solitude.” – @highfivemotivation
“I think stopping for a second to observe what you have to do and then trying to prioritise is the key!” – @ahyom1
“I focus on being present. I stop what I’m doing and pick one singular task and focus on just that. I examine how I’m feeling in every moment and what my senses are experiencing.” – @lisaannwetzel
These insights are summarised in the ‘STOP technique’. When we notice ourselves feeling overwhelmed, we can use this technique to help us focus on one thing at a time.
Interrupt your mental chatter with the command ‘stop!’ and pause whatever you’re doing.
TAKE A BREATH
Notice your breathing for a second. Breathe in slowly through the nose, expanding the belly, and exhale slowly out of your mouth.
Become the observer of your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions. What thoughts do you notice? What emotions do you feel? What does your body feel like?
Mindfully consider how you’d like to respond. What’s one thing you can focus on right now? What’s your most important and urgent priority?
2) The Can-Control Mindset
“I find writing helps me a lot. Once I put pen to paper, I can sort out my thoughts much better!” – @theracingmind
“For me, panic comes from the what ifs and the unknown. Focusing on what is right in front of me is the easiest way to eliminate any thoughts of the future.” – @lisaannwetzel
“I write a huge brain dump of everything I’ve got to do, highlight in different colours to prioritise, then pick three things of high priority to do that day. Half the time with overwhelm the problem is freezing and doing nothing, so this helps me stop panicking and just get three things done – which makes me feel so much better!” – @theoldkitchenwitch
Studies show that when we adopt a can-control mindset, we see meaningful and lasting differences in our wellbeing, health, and performance.
You might find the following mantra helpful: “be proactive, not reactive.”
As well as writing things down, you might want to try productivity apps. I love the apps Google Keep and Google Calendar. I use them to break down tasks into smaller steps, create to do lists and set reminders. This helps stop me from feeling overwhelmed by keeping me proactive and focused on what I can control.
3) Practising Relaxation
If we experience regular overwhelm and have shifted into a state of autostress (experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, headaches, and IBS on an ongoing basis), practising relaxation is fundamental to feeling better. To understand why, we need to delve into the science of what’s happening in our bodies.
The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response is triggered by a part of our nervous system whose job it is to control our automatic functions (e.g. our breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes). This part of our nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS is split into two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. These branches work opposite each other and only one can dominate at a time.
When we’re autostressed, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. This is what gives rise to the distressing physical responses we experience when stressed.
To feel calmer, we need to balance the activity of our ANS by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. ‘the relaxation response’). This demonstrates a highly important fact: rest and relaxation are productive and vital to our wellbeing.
Rest and relaxation help us be our healthiest, most productive selves. I cannot emphasise this enough!
I loved this suggestion from Megan at @citypsychchick, which resonated with me as my To Do lists can often get out of hand!
“I try taking something off my list and swapping it for something that will soothe me, a bath, a few minutes of some music I like or immersing myself in cooking a meal.”
Suzy Reading, author of The Self-Care Revolution, added:
“I’m enjoying soothing practices at the moment – restorative yoga, conscious breathing, mantra and mindful nature walks. All of these choices are guided by the intention to promote the functioning of my parasympathetic nervous system. Yoga postures, breathing and meditative practices can be such a tonic!”
When it comes to relaxation—and enhancing our mental wellness in general—different things work at different times for different people.
What we need to do is become the scientists of our own wellbeing, trying and testing different methods to discover what works best for us.
It’s also important to remember that relaxation is a skill—finding it difficult to relax is extremely common. Practise makes progress. Here are 4 things I’ve discovered work well for activating my relaxation response:
- Deep breathing exercises using the Calm app
- Mindfulness meditation with a heat pad
- Listening to piano music (I love the Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify!)
- Digital detoxing
4) Expressing Feelings
Finally, expressing our feelings and talking about it with others is another powerful way to stop feeling overwhelmed. So powerful in fact, it’s actually an in-built biological instinct. Research shows we release a hormone, oxytocin, that encourages us to seek social support during stressful times. This has been called the ‘tend and befriend’ response to stress.
“I’ve learnt that the thing that works for me is to talk about it, verbal or written and to realise that I may not be in control of everything (perfectionist tendencies) and to tackle one thing at a time (easier said than done) and to remind myself to go easy on me.” – @infj_heart
“I think/find the best thing for me is talking about it. Letting my feelings out and being honest with myself.” – @truthful_mummy
What’s interesting is that women have been shown to reach out to others significantly more than men. What’s even more interesting is the theory that this relates to women’s higher life expectancies; the hypothesis is that the male response to stress (which includes higher levels of social withdrawal, aggression, and substance abuse) puts them at higher risk for adverse health-related consequences. In contrast, the ‘tend and befriend’ response used more by women has been shown to reduce our stress response by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol, and thus is protective to health. In his TED Talk, Justin Baldoni eloquently explains how men can reframe cultural pressures to become better versions of themselves:
<blockquote class=”twitter-video” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>What It Means to Be "Man Enough" <a href=”https://t.co/63uzF4jtO3″>pic.twitter.com/63uzF4jtO3</a></p>— Ψ Pнιℓσѕσρнυѕ ۞✍۩ (@PsychologyDoc) <a href=”https://twitter.com/PsychologyDoc/status/937807404820987906?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>December 4, 2017</a></blockquote>
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If you don’t feel you have anyone you can open up to right now, there are ways to do this anonymously. For example, the website and app 7 Cups connects people with volunteer listeners for free. There’s also the app Pacifica that has many great features including supportive community forums, guided meditations and mood tracking.
Research also shows expressing our feelings in a journal can be powerfully therapeutic!
So there we have it: our community’s 4 powerful methods to stop feeling overwhelmed:
- Adopt The One-Focus Mindset
- Adopt The Can-Control Mindset
- Practise Relaxation
- Express Feelings
Why not bookmark this page and return to it next time you feel overwhelmed? There are many steps we can take to stop feeling overwhelmed. You got this!
Illustration by: @chibirdart
Click here to download the free Try & Test PDF Worksheet.
A BIG thank you to everyone in The Wellness Society community who shared their insights for this article!