What to Do When You Are Feeling Overwhelmed

Even the most organized and successful people have times when they feel overwhelmed. You may get this feeling regularly or rarely, but when it happens, you feel like you are going to explode. There is too much to do in too short of a time and everyone is counting on you.

It may help to know that you are not alone. A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) indicates about 3.7 percent of America’s full-time adult workers age 18 or older (4.3 million Americans) had one or more anxiety disorders in the past year.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by on-going states of overwhelming worry and fear, SAMHSA explains. Although feeling overwhelmed is not always an actual disorder, there is a wide range of actions that you can take, from learning to change behaviors on your own to seeking professional help.

What You Can Do on Your Own

There are some simple, basic coping skills you can implement yourself to regain your sense of control, Dr. Marcia Wilson writes in Psychology Today. First you should review the choices that led to the overwhelm. She then suggests making a list of everything you feel you are responsible for.

“Include your work projects, your to-do list at home, and the outcomes you are expected to create in your professional, family and social lives,” she writes. Getting everything on paper will help, to see them all together, organized and not swirling around in your head. When you have the list, consider the following for each of the tasks.

  • Be clear on why you are doing what you do. Tasks you agree to because you don’t want to disappoint someone will end up draining you. Choose your obligations wisely.
  • Put limits on your trade-offs. You will have to do some things in life you don’t care to do just because they need doing. But recognize if these things will help you get closer to doing what does inspire you. If the task does nothing to move you toward your goals, rethink taking it on.
  • Trust other people to do the work. Learn to delegate when you can. Even if no one will do the job as well as you, there could be someone who can learn to do these tasks satisfactorily.

With these things in mind and your list in front of you, take a deep breath and outline priorities. You will want to get the big things done, but also you can sprinkle those with smaller, pleasant things. Wilson cautions, however, to “pace yourself with useful distractions and friends.”

Dr. Susan Biali recommends ways to help get a handle on that overwhelming feeling with these basics:

  • Get the best sleep you can
  • Meditate or pray in the morning
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Get through one day at a time
  • Make “no” your default answer
  • Take sanity breaks / slow down
  • Give yourself a “Sabbath” day every week (take a break).

Another theory of coping is called “radical acceptance,” which means that you accept something completely, without judging it, explains Dr. Biali, referring to a book called The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. “For example, radically accepting the present moment means that you don’t fight it, get angry at it or try to change it into something that it’s not. To radically accept the present moment means that you must acknowledge that the present moment is what it is due to a long chain of events and decisions made by you and other people in the past.”

First, “you must accept a situation as it is, without judging it, even if you normally wish with all your heart that it were different.” Then you should ask yourself what series of circumstances led to this situation and what your role in it was.

This isn’t about having to fix or change anything at this point, the authors point out. “It’s just about accepting what is, without judgment, to help you get through the moment in a different way. By responding to the negative situation with this acceptance, it may be less painful for yourself and others.”

Professional Help

Sometimes you may realize that your feelings won’t right themselves with just your own efforts – and that’s okay.  In this case, treatment in the form of counseling and/or medication can help people successfully manage these conditions. There are many types of treatment that have proven effective to help with these overwhelming feelings, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Psycho-education
  • Coping skills and
  • Medication management

CBT is a common type of mental health counseling based on a theory that it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. This type of psychotherapy accomplishes its goals by working to change the person’s attitude.

Under the umbrella of CBT, DBT is a more specific course of therapy first developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, but is now also used for the treatment of other kinds of mental health disorders. According to SAMHSA, DBT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment approach with two key characteristics: a behavioral, problem-solving focus blended with acceptance-based strategies and mindfulness.

What Type of Help Do You Need?

Whether you need professional help to cope or if you can take steps yourself, there are strategies you can put in place so that you can stop feeling overwhelmed before it gets to crisis stage. If you need help discerning what might work best for you, call our toll-free helpline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.