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5 Critical Things to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

“Most of the time I feel overwhelmed by the number of things I have to do, which is compounded by me focusing on all of those things, rather than taking the steps to get them done,” said Sara Robinson, MA, a writer, author and mental skills coach.

As a mom to two young boys—3 and 6—and a professional who works from home, Robinson can quickly feel overwhelmed by the many practical work-related and kid-related tasks she has on her plate. Then add in “feeling the weight of raising good human beings [and] it can feel like a lot!”

Maybe you’re in a similar situation. Maybe your situation is completely different, but you still feel stressed, rushed, unfocused, and maybe even paralyzed.

Life, after all, is tough sometimes, and we can easily get overwhelmed, whether it’s due to the sheer number of responsibilities we have, or a difficult situation at work, or some new transition.

We also can make it tougher when we think things like: You have no reason to be overwhelmed! Everyone else is doing just fine with the same amount of work. You should be grateful to have a healthy baby. You’re so weak. 

First of all, know that everyone feels overwhelmed, whether they show it or not. And secondly, everyone’s tolerance for busyness and stress is different. That’s a good thing.

Below, you’ll find five strategies that can help you navigate your frazzled feelings. Tomorrow, I’ll share five more.

Identify the severity of your overwhelmed feelings. That is, are you feeling overwhelmed or whelmed? This is a distinction that art therapist Sara Roizen, ATR-BC, LCAT, learned from her mentor who was also a therapist.

“He defined the word overwhelmed by describing the image of a person curled up in fetal position on the floor and temporarily unable to function. My mentor said that in reality we rarely feel overwhelmed, but often feel ‘whelmed’ which was his word to describe a state related to overwhelm, but not as severe.”

This distinction is important. Because, as Roizen said, “Words are powerful and the way we describe our internal states can have a profound effect on our lived experience in the moment.”

When Roizen starts feeling bombarded by stressors and difficult emotions, she asks herself: Am I truly overwhelmed or more whelmed? Usually, she’s feeling the latter, which helps her to shift her perception.

Don’t power through. The impulse is to keep working, and keep doing, so we decrease our overwhelm. In reality, however, if we don’t take a break, our overwhelm just strengthens and soars. Robinson, author of the upcoming book Self-Care for Momssuggested reading, resting, listening to music or doing anything else that provides a mental and emotional pause.

When Robinson needs a break, she prefers to get out of the house. She eats a meal with friends, goes to the coffee shop to read and savor a chai tea latte, takes a dance class, or enjoys a date with her husband.

Focus on ease. Similarly, Tara Pringle Jefferson, suggested zooming out, something she learned from wellness advocate Francheska Medina.

Specifically, it’s important to ask ourselves the below question, said Jefferson, a writer, speaker and founder of the Self-Care Suite, a multicultural and intergenerational community dedicated to easy living through the lens of self-care.

“What can I do right now to get me to a place of calm and ease?” 

Sometimes, she said, the answer is delegating or rescheduling a meeting. Sometimes, it’s engaging in a calming practice. For Jefferson, that’s taking an herbal bath (“usually chamomile and lavender”).

“I tend to hold tension in my body when I’m stressed, so if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I feel it physically,” Jefferson said. Taking an herbal bath “dissolves all the tension.”

Try a self-compassionate gesture. Acknowledge your overwhelm, and give yourself some compassionate support. Roizen places her hand over her heart for a moment and tells herself: “This is hard.” This helps to create space for her feelings.

“Validating the experience rather than pushing it away has the opposite imagined effect. Rather than magnifying the feeling, it often softens and begins to dissolve more quickly.”

Be more realistic. One of the biggest reasons we get overwhelmed is that we hold unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We expect ourselves to do it all—without any (or much) help.

According to Jefferson, “a very popular quote is ‘You have the same 24 hours a day as Beyoncé,’ when really, that’s not true! If you don’t also have an assistant, a stylist, a manager, etc., you’re not going to be able to carry your workload in the same way.”

When Jefferson is working with women in her community, she suggests they sketch their day: How many hours are you working, sleep, eating, resting, etc.?

It’s critical to reassess how you spend your time, because often we’re trying to pack a whole lot into 24 hours, Jefferson said. “We also tend to underestimate how long it takes us to do certain tasks, which puts us behind, which makes us feel like we have to ‘catch up.'”

We can eliminate those hurried, stressed-out feelings by being realistic when creating our daily to-do lists, and giving ourselves extra time to complete tasks, she said.

Being overwhelmed is hard. Try to be kind to yourself every step of the way.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

5 Critical Things to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). 5 Critical Things to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Mar 2019
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