The other day, as I was getting ready for bed, I found myself completely buried with dread for the upcoming day. It was about to be Monday and the weekend had flown by quicker than a blink of my eye. I had back to back clients to see and meetings to attend just awaiting my return. At the same time, I had been struggling with a particularly bad flare up of arthritis and had been suffering from the resulting pain. I also had a side project I had been working on for a friend, long overdue at this point, which had been left untouched over the weekend. And, as if none of that was issue enough, there was a huge project for work with a looming deadline.
I was completely overwhelmed and it was starting to impact not only my mood, but my presence with my family. It was taking up all the space in my mind and ruining the only time I had with my family. It was then I decided, it had to stop. Family is the number one priority in my house. It goes above all other things. It was time I used my own advice and banish those stressors from my mind.
What To Do When You’re Overwhelmed
Most of the time when people come to me with unmanageable feelings of anxiety (and they don’t have an underlying history of mental health issues), it’s because they’re feeling overwhelmed with their current life situation. There’s some type of event that has happened or maybe someone has bitten off a bit more than they can chew. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will solve everyone’s issues. The only thing that will help is by choosing to do something about it. The action plan that has been most effective both personally and in the scope of my practice is outlined below.
Analyze Your Problem
First, we start with analyzing the situation at hand. Think of it like a giant plate of food. You know, those plates at the buffet you stack mile high with food because you don’t want to make a second or third trip. When you get back to the table and set the plate down, you have no idea where to even begin. Everything it just piled on top of everything else and that delicious looking watermelon slice is now touching your mashed potatoes with gravy. Gross. You can’t even begin to enjoy your meal until you start dissecting your plate. As overwhelming as it all feels, the only way to do it is to break it down into smaller segments.
I like to start with the largest problem and break it into smaller to-do tasks. I cover this strategy more thoroughly here. Once you unload that plate of food onto several plates, suddenly you are able to see all the pieces more thoroughly. It allows you to plan for how to tackle the problems.
Prioritize Your Tasks
Once you’ve broken it down into more manageable pieces, make a list of the top 10 items or tasks you have generated, in order of importance. It’s about prioritizing what is most important. Or, if we go back to the buffet example, it’s about finding the things you want to eat first before everything else.
It’s best to do all of this on paper for two reasons. One, writing things down helps you see everything that needs to be done instead of keeping it all in your head. Two, if it’s written down you can cross off tasks as you complete them. This allows for you to see progress. When people get anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed, seeing movement forward towards a goal is often a great mood booster.
Start On Task Number 1
Now that you have a list of items, in order of importance, it’s time for action. Start with item number one on your list and complete that task. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. When that task is completed, cross it out and move on to task number two. Rinse and repeat until all 10 tasks are done.
Then, it’s time to re-assess your plate. Has it gotten smaller? Maybe you were able to polish off that section of potato salad? If not, that’s okay. Just keep chewing and build your second list of top 10 priorities. You will get there soon!
Learn How To Say No
While you are clearing off your plate, understand that it is entirely okay to say no to more responsibility. You do not have to feel obligated to take on more than you can handle. You are already struggling. Additionally, there’s no need to feel shame for declining. It does not make you a terrible person to care for yourself.
In fact, when you are selective of the responsibilities you take on, you devote more of yourself to each task . If you have overburdened yourself, you will probably only be operating on the bare minimum rule. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have quality over quantity any day. Saying yes to everything is probably how you got in this pickle to being with, yes? So, try something new. Say no. It is absolutely freeing.
What To Do If You Get Stuck
Maybe you’re so far down the rabbit hole that you are unable to organize your tasks. Maybe you are SO overwhelmed that the thought of starting paralyzes you from acting. This is where you ask for help. Help can be in the form of a professional, such as a mental health clinician or even a good friend. Find someone who you can trust to help you start moving forward. (As a side note, in the case that your feelings are part of a larger mental health disorder, you should seek help from a trained professional and skip the friend.)
The key to getting yourself out of the situation is to always walk forward. If you keep moving towards your goal, no matter how distant it may seem, you will always get closer. Conversely, if you stand in the middle of the dark, terrified to move, you will never get anywhere. Nobody likes to feel like they are stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels.
Don’t Forget About Self Care
This doesn’t mean you cannot stop for a minute a take a break if you need it. If you need to step back from the plate and disengage from reality for a bit, do it. One of my favorite breaks involves a spending time reading fantasy fiction or playing video games. Hell, sometimes I just binge watch Netflix. Just come back to it and finish it when you can because it’s futile to pretend it doesn’t exist. It won’t go anywhere until you deal with it.
When it comes down to it, the only way to rid yourself of feeling overwhelmed is to stop adding more to your plate and begin tackling what’s already there. It’s about organizing and creating a plan of action, and then acting on it. Furthermore, it’s about giving yourself the permission to care for yourself in the process. But to me, the best part about this strategy, is that it allows you to regain control over your life, no matter what lemon it throws your way.
What other strategies have you used to crush that sense of dread? Let me know in the comments below!