Should you own your overwhelm?

Overwhelm is a very popular word these days. We’re all using it, and too many of us are feeling it. Our culture seems to nurture it.

Everyone agrees it’s not a good thing (although more and more people seem to express it like a badge of honor – “Oh my God, I’m just SO overwhelmed!!!”) – but here’s what we all need to consider (myself included): are we causing it?

Are you the reason you’re overwhelmed?

Notice how you feel when you read this. Did you nod your head, or did you feel an urge to click away immediately? Did it feel like I don’t understand?

But Melissa – there’s no way I’m responsible for the 150,000 things on my to-do list, what my boss expects of me, everything my kids and/or aging parents need – the demands that are flying into my inbox even as we speak!

Bear with me. Breathe. You’re right. Life does fly at us at 50,000 miles an hour. Everyone wants something, and it seems like every day some new piece of technology makes it even easier for everyone to find us and ask us for it.

Are you still breathing?

Because here’s the thing.

The piece of control that you have over your overwhelm is found in the piece of it that you are willing to own.

If you can discover the role you play in your overwhelm – you can intervene.

Not only can you probably reduce your overwhelm – you can ensure that you’re not making it worse.

[Tweet “3 ways to take responsibility for feeling overwhelmed (so you can feel better)”]


Overwhelm often feels like we’re drowning. It’s a sense of being engulfed. Almost by definition, it’s a boundary-less state. If you find yourself in a chronic sense of overwhelm, building some walls around it is probably your first critical step.

(You may have noticed that overeating sometimes takes the place of boundaries when you’re overwhelmed. It’s easy to reach for something to eat instead of diving into a project we want to avoid, or before we head into a meeting, or to treat ourselves when we are doing something we really wish we had said no to).

Here are some ways to use boundaries – instead of food – to take your power back from overwhelm.

Input Boundaries

The logical place to start is by creating limits on the overwhelming input flowing into your life. If people can access you with new demands 24-7, not only will the flow never stop, you won’t have time to get anything done. Set limits on when you check your email or answer your phone. Consider turning off some or all of the alerts on your cell phone. Consider apps like Freedom that restrict your access to the internet (so you can truly be productive). If you’re a news junkie or riveted by politics, schedule the time you’ll check in on that. Challenge yourself to shut your office door or set your status as “do not disturb” for certain times of the day.

Simply put, stop being available to input every hour of your day.

This one empowering step can significantly decrease your sense of being constantly reactive or “on alert,” and can actually be physiologically calming. It will also train others that you are not necessarily “on-call” and available at a moment’s notice. You’ll likely be amazed at how many issues can be resolved by others once they realize you’re not immediately available to save the day.

Time boundaries

Do you have a clear understanding about when you are on and off duty? When does your responsibility to answer your cell or check your email start and stop each day? Who has set these boundaries? Are you creating an expectation that you will be constantly available, and, is this a real need, or is it a habit that you’ve fallen into?

[Tweet “How long can you go without checking your phone, email, or social media without feeling anxious?”]

If you don’t have time boundaries, set some now. Don’t be afraid to start small. The important thing is to start creating space where you have control of your agenda.

No is a boundary

The most powerful boundary you can set is to say no. Of course, you already know this; the problem is that when you’re already overwhelmed, summoning the resources to say no can feel even harder than it might usually be. It’s well worth the time to practice saying no and come up with a way of doing so that’s fairly easy to say – even when you’re stressed. Practice in your car (really).  Here’s a guide to saying no more easily.

Replenish yourself

Hidden Hungers – the underlying needs that trigger emotional eating and overeating – show up when you’re craving things that you aren’t getting. Overwhelming periods can feel like the last time to focus on self-care and me-time, but actually, it’s when these things pay off for you the most.

Self-care and Me-time can be simple

Self-care doesn’t always require huge chunks of time or a major life overhaul. When you’re overwhelmed or stressed, self-care can be as simple as taking a deep breath and actually asking the question – “What do I need right now?” or showing some self-compassion.

Choose the grocery delivery option or cut some fresh flowers for your desk. Allow yourself to savor that cup of tea instead of ingesting it mindlessly while you pay bills. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best.

One of the most empowering things you can do when you are feeling overwhelmed is to carve out even a few minutes of daily me-time. Use that time to get grounded so that you can start your day from a pro-active place, with clarity about how you want your day to unfold.

Different strokes work for different folks, but you might experiment with ten minutes of quiet reflection, journaling, deep breathing or meditation, or a short, solitary walk. The goal is to collect your thoughts, center yourself, and ideally, gain a sense of your priorities for the day ahead.

Take Action

Taking action can reduce overwhelm – or paradoxically, it can increase it. Stress and overload can lead to a temptation to dive in because we want to feel productive. Unfortunately, it’s possible to churn up a lot of busywork (like answering emails) and never really get anywhere.

Here are strategies for taking action when you’re overwhelmed:

Chunk it down

Move from one small step to another. Break your project down into milestones or timed segments – the smaller the better. Overwhelm begins to be defeated when you can see and measure progress. If you are having a hard time getting started or diving back into your project (or even choosing which project to dive into), create a smaller step or commit to a smaller chunk of time. Momentum reduces overwhelm.

Give credit where credit is due

Focus on what you’re doing and have done at least as much as you focus on your to-do list. Create a way of giving yourself credit or seeing your progress, whether it’s checking items off, creating a timeline where you can see your forward progress, or designing a series of rewards or celebrations as you slog through what you have to do.

Minimize multitasking

You knew this was coming, right? We know that multitasking is actually overwhelming to the brain. It also reduces productivity, creativity, focus, and makes everything take longer. Multitasking and overwhelm are a recipe for mindless eating. And it’s so tempting when you’re overwhelmed.

Give yourself the gift of focusing on one task at a time. Know (decide) where you’re spending your time before you sit down at your desk or dive into your day. Use time boundaries and input boundaries to help maintain a clear focus so that you can be productive with the time that you have.

Taking control of overwhelm – and the overeating that goes with it – doesn’t have to happen perfectly or in one fell swoop. Small actions that build on your sense of effectiveness and control add up – sometimes pretty quickly. If you’re already overwhelmed, you don’t need another massive project. Pick one place to try one change. Commit to it, and begin to take your power back.

Talk soon,

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