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How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

In our always-on, busy-glorifying society, it’s clear feeling overwhelmed is a universal struggle.

So too is the self-inflicted pressure we put on ourselves.

Perfectionism—defined as “as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations”—is officially on the rise.

Growing perfectionistic tendencies have been identified as a key driver of depression and anxiety in millennials.

As Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK, explains:

"Individuals who experience high functioning anxiety are often very driven, high achievers who set incredibly high standards for themselves. They can find themselves constantly striving for perfection in everything they turn their hand to."

When you feel overwhelmed from both external and internal pressures, it’s like you’re signalling to your brain that your demands outweigh your resources.

Your brain interprets this as danger, and you risk triggering the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ stress response.

If this goes on long enough, you might start experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety (such as breathing difficulties, heart palpitations and IBS), as well as low mood and energy.

The key to preventing this is to develop your mental wellbeing skills.

Without mental wellbeing skills, you may find yourself resorting to your natural instinct: to do nothing and withdraw. (Remember: it’s called the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.)

Recognising your tendency to freeze is the first step in developing a helpful response strategy.

Once you recognise you’re in the stress response, you can mindfully decide what to do next.

Here are four ways to develop your mental wellbeing skills so that you can cope better with feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Cultivate the One-Focus Mindset
  2. Cultivate the Can-Control Mindset
  3. Develop a Relaxation Habit
  4. Express Your Feelings 

1. Cultivate the One-Focus Mindset

When you first notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, you can use the ‘STOP technique’ to help you focus on just one thing at a time.

Head to our Free Tools Library to download The STOP Technique worksheets and flashcards.

STOP!

Interrupt your mental chatter with the command ‘stop!’ and pause whatever you’re doing.

TAKE A BREATH

Notice your breathing for a second. Breathe in slowly through the nose, expanding the belly, and exhale slowly out of your mouth.

OBSERVE

Become the observer of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. What thoughts do you notice? What emotions do you feel? What’s happening in your body?

PROCEED

Mindfully consider how you’d like to respond. What’s one thing you can focus on right now? What’s your most important and urgent priority?


2. Cultivate the Can-Control Mindset

Studies show that when we adopt a can-control mindset, we see meaningful and lasting differences in our wellbeing, health and performance.

When you notice thoughts about factors outside your control, practice shifting your attention elsewhere. You can use page 10 of our popular Coronavirus Anxiety Workbook for distraction activities inspiration.

Using a productivity app can also help you to stay focused on what you can control.

We recommend Google Keep and Google Calendar.

Use them to break down tasks into smaller steps, create to do lists and set reminders. As well as defusing overwhelm, this can help you become more organised and productive.


free mental health resources-pdf



Feeling Stressed, Low or Anxious?

Download our free Understanding Your Mental Wellbeing Workbook today.

Content includes:

  • Identifying your personal signs of poor mental wellbeing - and why that's super important
  • Exploring your poor mental wellbeing triggers
  • Learning what you can do to improve your mental health

3. Develop a Relaxation Habit

If you regularly feel overwhelmed and have shifted into a state of autostress, practising relaxation is key to feeling better.

To understand why, we need to delve into the science of what’s happening in your body.

The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response is triggered by a part of your nervous system whose job it is to control your automatic functions (e.g., your breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes).

This part of your nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Your ANS is split into two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. These branches work opposite each other and only one can dominate at a time.

When you’re autostressed, your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive.

This is what gives rise to the distressing physical sensations you experience when stressed.

To feel calmer, you need to balance the activity of your ANS by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, a.k.a., 'the relaxation response').

This demonstrates a highly important fact: rest and relaxation are productive!

Adequate rest helps you be your healthiest self.

When it comes to relaxation—and improving your mental wellbeing in general—different things work at different times for different people.

What you need to do is become the scientist of your own wellbeing, trying and testing different methods to discover what works best for you.

It’s important to remember that relaxation is a skill.

Finding it difficult to relax is extremely common. Practise makes progress.

Here are some ideas for activating your relaxation response:

  • Restorative yoga
  • Meditation
  • Diaphragmatic breathing exercises

4. Express Your Feelings

Finally, expressing your feelings is a powerful way to stop feeling overwhelmed.

So powerful, it’s actually an in-built biological instinct.

Research shows we release a hormone, oxytocin, that encourages us to seek social support during stressful times. This has been called the ‘tend and befriend’ response to stress.

Women have been shown to reach out to others significantly more than men. This may even relate to women’s higher life expectancies - the theory is that the male response to stress (which includes higher levels of social withdrawal, aggression, and substance abuse) puts them at higher risk for adverse health-related consequences. In contrast, the ‘tend and befriend’ response used more by women has been shown to reduce the stress response by lowering heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol.

If you don’t feel you have anyone you can open up to, there are lots of ways to do this anonymously.

For example, the website and app 7 Cups connects people with volunteer listeners for free. For more free resources, check out our Social Connection Planner.

Research also shows expressing your feelings in a journal can be powerfully therapeutic!


Summary

Four key ways to reduce overwhelm and feel calmer:

  1. Cultivate the One-Focus Mindset
  2. Cultivate the Can-Control Mindset
  3. Develop a Relaxation Habit
  4. Express Your Feelings 

Why not bookmark this page and return to it next time you feel overwhelmed? There are many steps you can take to help yourself feel calmer. You got this!


 
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Discover The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit

  • Learn how to manage intense emotions
  • Discover a system for reducing overthinking
  • Access tools to help you build long-lasting healthy habits
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