How to Cope: Tips for the Easily Overwhelmed Person
I am what you might call a chronically overwhelmed person. I am not sure if such a diagnosis exists—and if it does it doesn't go by that name—but, put simply, that's what I am.
What is a chronically overwhelmed person? Based on my experience, such people consistently, on a long-term basis suffer in the following ways:
- High levels of stress, frustration, anxiety and confusion.
- Worry that can become obsession over getting things done - whether there will be enough time, the best way to get things done, the process for getting things done. This could be related a simple task like preparing a meal to a more complex task like planning a week's menu and grocery list. These feelings often apply to a specific task, for example a work project, as well as the general circumstances around that task, like how to manage your overall workload, time, multi-tasking on the job.
- Obsession with time, constantly watching the clock, frequently thinking, "I don't have time for that."
- Obsession with planning, organizing, making to-do lists.
- Panic and extreme reaction when a plan is altered due to uncontrollable circumstances, sometimes leading to acting out with emotional outbursts or addictive and/or self-harming behavior.
- Difficulty making decisions. Chronic procrastination. Inability to weigh possible consequences and existing circumstances and make a reasonable choice.
- Letting things go unfinished, never getting around to starting, paying bills late even when money is available, not keeping promises to self and others, making plans and goals and to-do lists that never are acted upon.
- Addiction, sometimes used as a distraction or anesthesia from obsessive thinking or feeling constantly stressed, which can be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting.
- Depression resulting from feeling stuck, hopeless, not accomplishing goals, not practicing basic self-care, not meeting standards at school or work.
- Anxiety from pushing yourself to meet standards or accomplish a to-do list that in practice feels too difficult and overwhelming, burn out, usually followed by a just as extreme bout of inactivity, which in turn leads to depression, and then, more acting out on an addiction to avoid the bad feelings.
As you can see, feeling chronically overwhelmed can lead to a terrible cycle of despair that for the sufferer is very hard to break. Maybe there are some Average Joes who are OK with being average but for some of us, it's either perfect or nothing at all. It's very difficult to find middle ground or be okay with being there. This all-or-nothing attitude is also the mark of an addictive personality. It's a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. But whatever is the cause or the symptom, being chronically overwhelmed is a constant crisis that can lead to debilitating stress and serious mental and physical health problems.
Practical solutions to overwhelmed feelings
These techniques may help slow the brain's gears, calm you, organize you and help you to take action when you need to but feel paralyzed. Keeping a list of practices handy to pull out when feeling especially overwhelmed and panicked can be helpful.
- Break down a task into components. Break those components into smaller pieces if possible. Then concentrate on accomplishing one of those tiny pieces. That's it. Don't get ahead of yourself. Focus on what you are doing in the present moment, just that one tiny piece.
Example of task break down
Write an article
Read documents supplied at council meeting
Interview two sources
Formulate questions to get more info, clarify what I don't understand, verify what I think I know
Get art to go with story
Formulate questions for each source based on their area of involvement, expertise
Interview John Doe
Interview Jane Doe
Write rough draft
Drive to road being repaired to get photo for story on transportation
Get IDs on any crew members in photo and construction company name
Work up photo in PhotoShop and attach to story
Edit story and submit final draft
Now that's a lot of steps to write one article. But that's the work that's necessary anyway, and by having it all written out to refer to, you can alleviate some of that monkey brain that's constantly chattering "What do I have to do next? What do I have to do next?" That only leads to anxiety and even forgetfulness. Write it out so you can focus. It's okay to be overwhelmed, but regurgitating the same thoughts does not lead to productivity. Action is key.
- That said, dive in. Focus on one task at a time and try not to worry about all the other steps that you need to complete. This is easier if you're not on a deadline, but often stressful situations are induced by deadlines. Nevertheless, the only way to do something while maintaining a modicum of sanity is to do it one step at a time. Anyone who's ever conducted a phone interview while answering email and writing another story during the boring parts will tell you that! You may be shocked to discover that you can get the same amount of work done when you make the time to focus on each individual task as you do when you're a multi-tasking maniac!
- Take breaks. Get up and walk away for five minutes, chat with a co-worker for a bit, make a hot cup of tea, stretch your legs. You work more efficiently when refreshed and even though you don't believe it, there really is time for a five minute break. If there isn't you make the time. This is also a signal to you that you value yourself and will take care of yourself regardless of the situation and how stressful it is, and that can be a real confidence booster! So whatever the situation, if you're feeling overwhelmed, take a break, for five minutes or five hours, then come back to it with fresh perspective.
Finding better ways to manage your responsibilities is important. But sometimes, there's a reason we feel like we can't get it all done. It's because we can't. It's too much. This is not a negative commentary on our character. It is simply a fact. If you've tried and tried to manage all your duties and are still feeling an abundance of distress, it's time to eliminate something. This could mean giving up a service position in a club and just being a member, or it could mean giving up the club altogether for a while. Maybe you could delegate a duty at work or maybe you're taking on extra work that's not your responsibility anyway or isn't essential to getting the job done. Maybe cooking a gourmet meal from scratch every night is exhausting and it's time to find some quick recipes or frozen alternatives. Find creative ways to reduce your load until its bearable.
- Prioritize. What's necessary and what's not? What's most important and needs to be done now and what can wait three hours or three days? This is not a license to procrastinate. Often, easily overwhelmed people have a hard time distinguishing between the truly crucial and the merely desirable (but not necessary). That's because everything seems truly crucial. Learn to prioritize, and if that's too difficult, ask someone for help making the distinction.
Just do it
There's only so much organizing you can do. And sometimes, organizing and planning can only exacerbate the overwhelmed person's symptoms. There are situations when it's time to "just do it." When my apartment is a disaster area, I sometimes don't know what room to tackle first. There is no right answer, although I often think there is. It's a case of just dive in and get something done. In these situations, "time boxing" is an effective tool. Set a timer for, say 15 minutes, do all you can do in that amount of time, and when it goes off, stop and forget about that task. You'll be amazed how much can get done when you put some muscle into it and leave out the mind.
Make a life binder
A life binder can be of great help organizing and compartmentalizing. The simplest way to create one is to buy a three-ring notebook, page dividers and labels. The dividers are a literal separation of the various compartments of your life. That can help mentally compartmentalize. Each section stands alone. There are no rules as to what the sections have to address - it's up to you.
I recently started a life binder and my categories include exercise, cleaning, finances and menus, areas that I have difficulty managing. I've decided to set general long-term goals and specific short-term goals for each category. To address my problem keeping my apartment consistently clean, for example, I set dates for dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, etc. A general goal could be to vacuum twice a month. (Yes, that's actually an improvement for me.) I set the dates to do vacuum and check off that task when it's done. There are a variety of ways to organize life binders. They can even be used to keep track of expenses and important documents.
The author who goes by "yoursinglepurpose" wrote an excellent and very detailed article about how to create a life binder.
If you're a chronically overwhelmed person, you're likely burdened with stress. Finding ways to relax is crucial to coping day-to-day.
- Find a relaxation CD or download music that works for you and listen to it regularly. I like "Super Brain Power: 28 Minutes to a Supercharged Brain" by Dane Spotts. It's the first relaxation CD to ever truly make me feel rested and refreshed, body and mind.
- Exercise to burn off anxious energy.
- Practice deep breathing and/or meditation.
- Take hot baths, drink a cup of hot tea, use a heating pad to soothe sore muscles, get a message, anything that calms you.
- Find a hobby you enjoy and get lost in it to take your mind of the incessant "to dos."
Challenges to managing if you're overwhelmed
Now here's where it gets really problematic: If you are truly a chronically overwhelmed person, after reading the above suggestions, you are, yes indeed, overwhelmed. You don't know where to start.You'll never have time to practice all those coping skills. You'll try them all every day and burn out quickly from checking off a mile-long coping skills to-do list. And the cycle of despair continues.
Let me let you off the hook. You won't be able to do all these for very long.You may not be able to do even one of these suggestions every day for more than a few days at a time. It's hard to change. It's scary and it's triggering. Whether you're practicing one skill or all of them, you will likely be triggered by whatever your dissociative demons are: shopping, gambling, overworking, and so forth.
It makes it even tougher, but learning to live with and not act on those compulsive feelings is absolutely necessary to overcoming them. There is no other way. They will not go away any time soon no matter what you do. It may be a good idea to speak with a counselor, go to a 12-step group or find a person who's experienced what you're going through so you can feel less alone and get some wise counsel.
Regardless of whether you seek outside help, start small. Try one coping skill today. See how it goes. Try it again tomorrow and the next day and try to keep it up as long as you can. If you freak out and don't practice it one day, do it the next. Try not to go more than one day without practicing, because it's harder to restart than to maintain. After three or four weeks, when you've mastered one skill, add another, if you can tolerate it. The goal is not to perfectly handle every situation with poise and calm, although that would be nice. The goal is to adjust ever so slightly your reaction to triggers, build competence in handling everyday situations that were previously intolerable and to decrease your stress level and improve your health. If any of these activities is causing the opposite effect and is increasing your stress, it's best to stop. Discomfort is okay and is necessary to change up to a point. Go a little past your comfort zone, but not past your tolerance zone.
Here are a couple of related articles I wrote that you may find helpful:
© 2013 Crystal Tatum