We live in a busy world and sometimes life circumstances, responsibilities, or facing new things can become stressful and overwhelming. Fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in and suddenly we feel overwhelmed by it all. It happens to all of us at some point, but for some people it happens a lot, and learning how to deal with, and overcome those feelings of overwhelm becomes critical for functioning well in life.
Growing up I often felt overwhelmed and I lacked confidence in just about every situation I found myself in. In the end feeling overwhelmed became my automatic feeling when faced with something new, or something that I considered was beyond my capabilities. A feeling of overwhelm would rise up and become the thing uppermost in my mind, telling me that I didn’t have what it takes to do this, that I wasn’t smart enough, no one would want to listen to what I have to say, etc.
It took me many years to realise what was happening to me. Echoes of childhood insecurities, and things spoken over me, were attaching themselves to the new situation. Those echoes produced a feeling of overwhelm that over time became my habitual response to any new situation. I have since found out that many people feel the same thing when faced with something new to learn, or a new situation to step into.
The overwhelm I experienced was around new situations, learning new things or tackling new tasks, but overwhelm can come from other things too –
- Taking too much responsibility upon yourself.
- Trying to be everything to everyone.
- Trying to focus on too many things at once.
- Being too optimistic about how much time it takes to do a task.
- Adding too many appointments and projects to your weekly calendar.
- Not saying “No” to people and projects.
- Major life changes such as losing a loved one, changing jobs, or moving house.
Strategies for overcoming overwhelm
How can you deal with overwhelm? What are some things that can help you navigate through it?
- Recognise the feeling and acknowledge it. For some people it is such an automatic response that they are deep into feeling overwhelmed before they realise that it has hit them again. As soon as you recognise the feeling, stop and acknowledge it. Acknowledging it will put you in the control seat. Accept your anxiety; acknowledge it, bring it out into the open, into the light, and it will immediately lessen its ability to silently manipulate you. Acknowledge your anxiety, but also understand this – on the other side of this is a breakthrough that will see you established in a new place of growth and achievement.
- Try to understand the underlying cause of the feeling. Stop and ask yourself some questions to ascertain where the overwhelm came from. Use questions like, "Why am I feeling this way?" "What is behind this feeling?" "When did it start?" Then look at the following -
- Is this thing something that you are supposed to be doing at the moment? (by choice, as part of your job, or you feel called by God to do it). If it is, the important thing will be prioritising both time and other commitments in order to make it work.
- Is it beyond your capabilities? Very few things are; most things simply feel daunting and beyond our capabilities because we haven’t yet learnt how to do them.
- Is it an echo from your past attaching itself to this present moment? Many times it is echoes of our past attaching itself to our present. If it’s a historical echo then consider getting help to work through those things – counselling, prayer ministry etc.
- Take a moment to breathe. Literally pause and concentrate on breathing for a few seconds – in, out, in, out, in out… This pausing and concentrating on your breathing will help re-centre you and enable you to take back control to some extent. You may have to do this several times in a short space of time until you feel you are okay. Having to do this several times doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it is part of retraining yourself mentally, emotionally and in your reactions.
- Write it down. Get the thoughts and feelings out in the open, out of your mind, so that you can see them clearly. Make a list of what needs doing, and prioritise.
- Understand that learning new things takes time. With time you will gain the skills needed and with practice things will get easier to do.
- Recall to mind past successes. There are many times in your life when you’ve pushed past the feelings of overwhelm and grown in amazing ways, or achieved things you initially thought that you couldn’t do. Recall those times, encouraging yourself and building up your faith in yourself.
- Admit that you can’t do everything, and look at things honestly. Is this something that you need to do, or can you delegate it? If it’s not something you have to do, pass it on or give it back to the person who gave it to you to do. Yes, you may be letting them down, or you may feel like you are letting them down. There can be a difference between those two, and sometimes the feeling of letting someone down may not be accurate; they may not feel let down at all. But even if you are letting then down, you, and they, will have to accept that and work through it. You can’t do everything.
- Ask for help if you need it.
- For the task - Ask an actual person or ask the internet. There is so much help available now for just about anything; all it needs is for you to ask.
- On a personal level – You may need to be given some strategies to help you move past the limitations around your life, or you may need someone to help you recognise where the feeling came from in your earlier years.
- Don’t give into the pressure of perfectionism. If having to get things right or perfect is something you struggle with then remind yourself that good enough may very well be okay in this situation. Ask, "Does it really need to be perfect?" "Why does it need to be perfect?" "What am I trying to prove, if anything, by it having to be perfect?"
- Give up having to be in control. For most people the feeling of having to be in control is not about having to have the power in a situation, but about wanting to avoid feeling powerless. So ask yourself, "Is this need to be in control because I need to have power over this situation, or over other people, or because I don’t like feeling powerless?" If it’s that you don’t like feeling powerless, ask yourself where that feeling first came into your life, and deal with the issues around that. Find some truth coaches / affirmations to help re-educate and recalibrate your beliefs about yourself. As you do you’ll find that you can approach feeling powerless as an adult who has the ability to understand and work through things in a way that you couldn’t as a child. In doing so you’ll find that you can deal with situations far better.
- Develop strategies to overcome your feelings of overwhelm. That’s partly what this article is for, to give you some strategies, but you many find others that work better for you. Develop a strategy that works for you and use it. Prioritise and schedule time to attend to the things you actually do need to focus on.
- Be kind to yourself. You are not a super-hero, you are human, so treat yourself kindly. Recognise that It takes time to learn new skills or even to upskill in already established areas. During the learning time give yourself grace and permission to make mistakes. Don’t call yourself names or speak negative words over your life.
- Create boundaries. If the feeling of overwhelm is added to by family, friends or workmates pulling on you, then create boundaries that work for you, eg. telling the kids this is your time out and teaching them to respect that. While this may take time and consistency to start with, they will soon learn and give you the space you need.
- Learn to say, "No." Determine if the extra calls on your time or talents are essential, important, unimportant or urgent. Sort them into these categories in your mind, or on paper, and prioritise them so that you know what needs doing first, and what can wait. Once you’ve decided what’s important create boundaries around those important activities (like setting a specific time to do them or a length of time that you’ll give to them) and do not budge under the pressure of further incoming distractions. Do not allow unimportant noise and activities to creep in.
- Make honest assessments of your capabilities. Are you actually unable to face this, or do this thing, or do you just feel momentarily overwhelmed. If you believe that you’re dumb or that you can't do this, your beliefs will cause you to subconsciously sabotage your efforts to step into new things. But if you believe you are capable, but just need time to learn and acclimate to this new thing, then you give yourself the permission to feel that while something is hard at present, you know that you’ll get there.
- Pray! Hand your anxieties over to the Lord; let Him carry the load. He says, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) He also says, "If any of you lack wisdom, you should ask of God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you." (James 1:5)
- Question your assumptions and self-judgements. Are they actually accurate? Study what Scripture says about you; find out how amazing you are. Reframe how you see yourself – speak Scripture affirmations, truth coaches or decrees over yourself. Ask God to give you revelation of how He sees your ability level. Challenge and change overwhelming anxiety inducing thoughts; bring them into subjection to truth.
- Tap into the mind of Christ – As Christians we have access to the One who is never overwhelmed, who has all wisdom and all knowledge. He has some great ideas of how to manage what seems too big for you. Ask Him to share His ideas with you.
- Pre-formulate some strategies to use – If you’re a person who is prone to feeling overwhelmed then make some strategies ahead of time that you can use. Write them on a post it note, or piece of paper, and put it where you’ll see it so that they are there for you to refer to, should you need them. Find what works for you best. Here are some wonderfully simple ones –
- Take a power walk – Get up and go for a fast walk for ten minutes or so to bring you back to calm. Or go hiking; get out into the countryside and let nature minister to you.
- Stretch your body – Get up from your desk, or wherever, and do some simple stretches. Taking that break and working your body gets all sorts of good stuff happening and can lower your stress levels.
- Play with your kids – Use play to refocus and reset yourself. Play is so beneficial, not just for kids but for adults too. Relax, have some fun, get your mind of things for a bit.
- Listen to some calming music – Music has the ability to affect us hugely, both in making us calm or in revving us up. Choose some calming music that you like, sit back and let the music do its work to reset you emotionally.
- Dance, do some art, get your hobby going – All these things are great stress relievers and will help shift your body and mind back into a state of peace. The word ‘therapy’ we use today actually comes from an ancient Greek word ‘therapio’ which means ‘healing which comes through the arts and music'.