Sometimes it feels like life throws more at us than we're equipped to handle. Whether stress is coming from work, your home, what’s happening in the world, your relationships, or all of the above, it’s important to have some techniques in your arsenal that can help you reset when it all starts feeling like too much. Here are some things you can try the next time you feel overwhelmed:
When possible, the best thing to do is to first take a time-out from whatever is causing you stress. You might feel like you have too much to do to take a break, but the reality is that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you likely won’t be as productive as you could be if you gave yourself the chance to calm down and refocus. Stepping away and shifting your attention likely won’t be the long-term solution to addressing your stress, but welcoming a distraction for a short while can help you re-approach the issue more calmly and with more clarity.
Break it down and write it out
Often a task feels overwhelming because it seems too big to even know where to start. Breaking a task down into smaller, actionable “chunks” can make the task seem more manageable and help alleviate the feeling of overwhelm. You might start by writing down the smallest, easiest parts of the task at hand that you know you can accomplish first. If you find it more helpful to work things out verbally, call a friend and talk it through with them. Sometimes, saying things out loud can be enough to help calm anxiety, plus they may also be able to provide some much-needed perspective and support.
Take something off your plate
Remember that it’s okay to say no or to turn things down. For many people, this can be extremely difficult – we want to be helpful in whatever ways we can, and to be there for the people in our lives. The fact is that if you take on more than you can handle, you may end up letting more people down than had you politely turned down the request in the first place. And further, your mental health will likely suffer too. If there’s something that you can and need to take off your plate, don’t feel guilty for doing so.
Progressive muscle relaxation
****Stress and anxiety can often manifest in physical ways that we don’t always notice in ourselves. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re likely holding some of that tension in your body. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is one technique that can help remind your body what it’s like to feel relaxed, which in turn can help reduce overall levels of stress and anxiety. To practice PMR, first find a quiet, comfortable place where you aren’t likely to be disturbed. Then, choose one area of the body or group of muscles to start with – you may choose to start with your feet and work your way up the body, or start with your face and work your way down. Tense this targeted group of muscles, squeezing as hard as you can for 5 seconds, then relax and let the muscles go limp. Close your eyes while you do this, really focusing on the difference in sensation between when you are tensing these muscles and when you’re relaxing them.
****When we’re stressing about the uncertainty of the future or things that are out of our control, it can be helpful to ground ourselves in the present moment. Mindfulness can help to calm the mind by creating space between you and negative or stressful thoughts. Even though our thoughts are just thoughts and they can’t physically hurt us, our brain will often interpret them as real threats and thereby trigger a very real stress response in the body. Practicing mindfulness can help to change the way we interpret these negative thoughts, so that they don’t feel so all-consuming.
You can practice mindfulness daily, or use these techniques as needed when you’re particularly stressed out. There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, but one of the easiest and most common ways is through mindful breathing. First, find a quiet, private place and get comfortable. Close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth, focusing on the feeling of the air filling your lungs and your stomach expanding as you inhale, and your body sinking down into the floor as you exhale. Count each breath – 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale – until you get to 10. Once you reach 10, start over again at 1, and repeat this cycle until you feel calm. While you’re breathing, thoughts will enter your mind. This is normal! When this happens, acknowledge the presence of that thought, and then let it go and return your attention to the breath.
Above all, remember to be gentle and kind to yourself. Everyone gets overwhelmed from time to time. In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to forget how important it is to allow yourself time to do things that feel good just for the sake of enjoyment. Check-in with yourself often, listening to your body’s need for rest and acknowledging when you need to take a break and focus on self-care. Staying tuned-in to how you’re feeling and what you need in combination with having some techniques at-the-ready for when things go sideways will help you to feel more in control and prevent stress and anxiety from getting in the way of living your best life.