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What to Do If You’re Feeling Completely Overwhelmed

Simple solutions to a common problem.

Max Oppenheim/Getty Images
Max Oppenheim/Getty Images

Many of us manage to have jobs, families, some semblance of a social life, and even mix in personal projects like hobbies or volunteer programs. We all aim to wind up at the perfect integration of all of these — including downtime to recharge when it’s necessary. But unfortunately, real life often looks very different than that, and as a result, we feel overwhelmed.

You know the feeling: It may start off subtly, as you come to terms with the volume of your obligations and responsibilities, or it can come on quickly, making you feel crushed, helpless, and as if you’re no longer in control of your own life. Feeling overwhelmed can be debilitating and, of course, a major source of stress. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are three quick techniques to help you feel less overwhelmed, so you can reset and continue with your day:

Focus on what’s happening in the moment

When you’re overwhelmed, it can be easy to fall into a spiral of “what ifs.” What if I don’t finish this project? What if I lose my job? What if I can’t pay my bills? But instead of focusing on all the potential things that could go wrong in the future, take a moment to pause, and concentrate on what’s happening to you right that minute.

If you’ve never practiced mindfulness before, a good place to start is a Buddhist mindfulness tool called RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, non-identification) — an acronym for four simple steps that anyone can take to reclaim their agency in a situation where they feel overwhelmed. First, recognize what is happening to you, including any thoughts or emotions — positive or negative — and understand where they come from. Then allow or accept your experience. You are feeling overwhelmed, and that’s OK. Third, investigate your inner experience with kindness — in other words, get curious and ask questions of yourself about why you’re feeling this way. The final step, non-identification, is a reminder that we are not just our feelings or perceived shortcomings. Even if we feel completely overwhelmed, that is not our identity — it is temporary.

Take a break

If you feel as though you have a never ending list of tasks to complete, taking a break may seem like the last thing you want to do. But in reality, the opposite is true. Taking a few minutes to step away from what you’re working on — whether it’s to take a walk around the block, eat a snack, or even just look out the window for a while — can help your mind reset and get back on track. “You need breaks, don’t tell yourself that you’re better off just plowing through,” Susan Biali Haas, M.D. emphasizes.

There’s also science behind the idea of taking breaks. Research — published in Current Biology and conducted by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke — found that taking short breaks to rest while we’re in the process of learning something new can improve our memory. And though we tend to focus on “putting in the work” to learn something, this research highlights the importance of rest in the process.

Embrace ruthless prioritization

When you’re overwhelmed, everything can feel like a priority. But since it’s impossible to do everything at once, it requires you to step in and identify which tasks are energizing for you, and which are draining. Once you have that figured out, toggle between energizing and draining tasks so that your work holds your attention, but also still gets done.

Having trouble categorizing your tasks? You may want to try the Eisenhower Matrix. Named after former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, its four categories of task organization involve two emotionally distinct labels: urgent and important. Thrive editor Mallory Stratton describes this as the following:

  • Urgent/Important: Stimulating, short turnaround. These are aspects of your job you look forward to most and can focus on easily.
  • Urgent/Not Important: Draining, short turnaround. Emails, requests, processes that are timely but don’t really move the needle on the wider project.
  • Important/Not Urgent: Stimulating, longer term projects that are valuable for your career growth and personal development. Spend a little time on these daily or weekly to refocus your attention and recharge your emotional reserves.
  • Not Important/Not Urgent: Draining tasks that need to get done eventually, but you never seem in the mood to get them out of the way.

Again, taking the time and energy to sort out the importance and urgency of your tasks may seem counterintuitive when you’re already feeling as though you’re drowning in work, but you’ll find that those are just a few minutes that are very well spent. The end result will be a prioritized list of tasks, and ideally, some relief from feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

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