Podcast 118: What to do when you’re overwhelmed

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This is podcast 118 and it’s about what to do when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes, “just do it,” the subject of my previous podcast, isn’t going to work. There are days when stressful situations pile up to the point where you really can’t function, or you can see that you’re operating way below normal and really not getting anything done.

Overwhelm can come from work, your personal life, the world, anywhere. Usually it’s a combination of those things. If you have several big things going on at work, you can get relief at home, where things are orderly and calm. If a relationship issue is stressing you out, diving into work can be a blessing.

Then there are those times when a challenging situation with a colleague is compounded with a cold that won’t go away, depressing headlines in the newspaper and the dog next door that prevented you from sleeping later past 5 am.

Here’s a little sidebar. I just listened to a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal about how stress can be good for you. She wrote a book about this too, called The Upside of Stress. In the talk she mentions a study that showed that the connection between higher risk of death and stress was actually a connection between higher risk of death and the belief that stress is harmful! That’s pretty trippy.

That knowledge alone can help reduce your stress. Your body responds to stress in ways that actually help you get through it rather than harming you. Here are some more ideas to deal with this kind of overwhelm.

Find a way to distract yourself. When you’re at that point where you are no longer contributing, then switch gears. Do something completely different. At the very least, get into motion.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think it was cheating to seek out distractions. Shouldn’t I just keep sitting here and powering through? Gritting my teeth and sticking with it until the thing was done? Stopping felt like giving up, failing even.

Physical activity of any kind is a great distraction from mental or emotional overwhelm. It directs some or all of your attention to your physical body, attention that is now diverted away from the stressful situation. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing, just paying attention to your breath, not breathing in any particular way, will help. That derailment is what we’re looking for.

However, the more demanding the physical activity, the better, because it will occupy more of your attention. A book or movie or TV show that really absorbs you will work too. Ones that take you completely into their world so that your completely forget about the stressful situation.

Here are some specific ideas:

  • Experience nature. Either a walk in the park or a plant or cut flowers to gaze at.
  • Meditate. Close your eyes and do a one minute body scan.
  • Reach out. Call or text someone. Ask how they are, or if they know any good jokes, rather than spending the time talking about your stress. Remember, derailment.
  • Write it out. I’m a huge fan of journaling. Putting thoughts into words and recording them forces me to make my thoughts somewhat coherent and that’s less stressful than the chaotic jumble they feel like in my mind.
  • Shift to a different task. Even if you’ve run out of steam, you may be able to knock out a less important task, and get a boost from checking something off your list.

I suggest keeping a list of overwhelm busters handy; a list on your phone or in Evernote. Or even on a Post It where you’ll see it often. It’s great to have a collection of go-to ideas to relieve stress, but it’s just as important to train yourself to recognize when you’re getting overwhelmed.

In fact, take that a step further and use all these ideas regularly, no matter how you feel. They’re all great ways to maintain your emotional and mental health, not just get it back when overwhelm overtakes you. What you can do right now: start making that list. Tailor it to yourself and your lifestyle. If you have a backyard, that can be your nature option. If you have an upbeat person in your life who’s always happy to hear from you, that person can be your reach out option.