Five Ways to Cope When You're Overwhelmed

July 27, 2015

Photo courtesy Schicka

Every life has its ups and downs, its simple pleasures and everyday adventures. It also has times when an adventure becomes a bit more than “everyday”—when it challenges your skills and emotional resilience, stretches you beyond what you think you can do, and threatens to overwhelm you. This is how you grow.

Lately, overwhelm has been my constant companion. I’m hip deep in revitalizing my freelance writing—simultaneously taking online classes, building a writer’s website, and brainstorming ideas for pitches. There’s nothing at all curvaceous about my learning curve right now: it points straight up!

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. We all have times in our lives when we take on big projects or face major life changes that leave us feeling exhausted and scared. Here are some ways I’ve been coping that might help you, too:

Do something related to your project every day, no matter how small. Make lists of ridiculously small steps and cross them off as you go. Build on those steps. If you’re learning something new, reread the information you read yesterday and you’ll probably understand it better. Experiment over and over with that new art technique, or set a timer and work on your project for 15 minutes. Just keep at it. Working on it every day helps to desensitize you to the scariness.

Sit with the uncomfortable feelings. Let them roll over you, and often you find they pass and you can get on with your work. If you’re especially worried, allow yourself a designated “worry time,” and whenever anxious thoughts arise, tell yourself that you’ll think about them during worry time.

Plan treats for yourself while you’re going through this experience. Choose something comforting for mind, body, or soul, something that refills your emotional well. Last week I had a massage and met a friend for lunch to offset the hours I spent struggling with my new website.

Keep your focus on the small step right in front of you. Don’t allow yourself to drift into thoughts of “what if,” fantasize about failure, obsess about the next 10 steps you’ll need to take, or even let your mind wander to the big picture. There will be time for that later. I’m encouraged by E.L. Doctorow’s words about writing: “[It] is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When it all becomes too much, step aside before you reach the crying and/or cursing stage (or, even worse, the drinking stage). If I’m tired, or if I’ve been at it for several hours, little setbacks can seem insurmountable. When I start to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, I know it’s time to stop for a while. I’ll return when I’m feeling rested and energetic again.

Even though I’ve felt overwhelmed lately, I’ve also felt more energetic and excited than I have for a while. I think the challenge is worth the struggle—and that makes me happy.

When you’re faced with a big, overwhelming project or experience, how do you cope?

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  1. Sorry to hear you've been feeling overwhelmed lately, but I'm glad you are feeling energetic and excited. Sounds like you've some good steps for how to handle the overwhelm. Good luck!

  2. Thanks, Cheryl. Things are moving along, slowly. No crying necessary right now. I'll keep you posted on the progress.

  3. Excellent tips here. I like the "designated worry time." I've also heard about making a "worry jar" where you write down what you're obsessing over and ceremonially put it in the jar. Then when the feeling arises again, you can remind yourself it's already in the jar. I haven't tried that yet but I like the concept.

  4. Leanne--Thanks for stopping by! I like the worry jar concept. I've also heard of writing down the worry, then burning or otherwise destroying it. Whatever works!