How To Overcome Overwhelm and Save Your Sanity in The Process

A theme that’s been cropping up a bit in my life lately – both personally and for the friends I’ve been speaking to – is the mire of overwhelm. Seems we’re submerged in it, drowning in a deluge of end-of-year-itis and unrealistic expectations as we recklessly push ourselves to get everything done before December 31.

The crush of overwhelm can be rapid and it usually goes a little something like this: one moment you’re on top of things – flying through your to-do list, taking on new projects with an enthusiastic “YES!”, squeezing in tasks because you’re feeling ambitious! energetic! high on achievement!… and then you take it too far. Overstimulated can very quickly veer off into the seedy backstreets of Overwrought and Overwhelmed, and it ain’t pretty.

I was there myself a few weeks ago and through a bit of soul-searching and my fair share brown paper bag breathing (well, almost), I found a few easy ways to regain a sense of calm before stress completely blindsided me, as shared below.

Inhale + exhale. Then move.


Stop for a moment. Scale back the intensity of your overwhelm by finding a quiet place – if you’re at work, jump in your car; if you’re at home, get horizontal on your bed – and once you’re there, give the following breathing exercise a go.

Visualise your overwhelm – picture it as a big, black ball or whatever works for you – and when you have it clear in your mind, slowly and deliberately breathe in. Let the breath spread across your cells and flow right down into your belly, and when you exhale, imagine your anxiety shrinking as you grow bigger in stature. Imagine yourself transcending the overwhelm until eventually it grows so small it disappears completely.

The next step is even easier (and I’ll bet you a million homemade vanilla cupcakes you’re feeling better by this point anyway). Get outside. Walk it out. Five or ten minutes of fresh air will save you hours (upon hours) of going round-in-circles as you try to be productive in a panicked state. Be kind to yourself. You have permission to breathe, release, move. It’s that effortless.

Plan ahead (it’s kinda crucial).


When you’re in overdrive – launching your new website on a ridiculous deadline, finishing up that last-minute freelance project, carelessly scattering your energy in the direction of anyone and anything that will take it – tunnel vision sets in.

“Hello, drowning here! How am I meant to find time to plan out next week when I’m presently paralysed?” you cry.

I hear you but you know why it’s important? Because you don’t want to feel this frazzled next week. Or ever.

I’ve mentioned before that I use Evernote to stay organised and it’s been a serious sanity-saver. If Evernote was a guy and I was single, it’d be ON. Try it.

To stay on top of my blog, I create Notes in the app for my Blogs to Bookmark and Making Me Happy posts each week and fill them up as I discover a wicked site or when something meaningful happens. I also flesh out juicy ideas for blog posts – bullet points/ lists a-plenty/ snappy sentences – so that when I come to actually writing the post, a big chunk is already done. Adding a couple of words to Evernote when they’re top of mind takes me less than 30 seconds, but saves me a bucketload of time in the long run.

Which brings me to my next point…

Break ambitious (overwhelming, glee-sucking) goals into manageable strides. 


Does it ALL really need to be done RIGHT. THIS. VERY. SECOND? Not always. Rarely, in fact, we just tell ourselves it does.

You can work your priorities one of two ways. Either commit one (or more) full day/s to a specific task and knock it off your list without distractions or attempting to do “bits and pieces of everything” or, break your bigger tasks down into bite-size pieces and do one small part each day until the job is done.

Narrow your priorities. It seems rudimentary when it’s spelled out in black and white like that, but it’s “all or nothing” thinking that gets us in trouble in the first place. There are options, and when you slash the non-urgents off the list (or create a second list to house them) stuff gets done. And we move on to the bigger, brighter, bolder business of kicking ass.

Cut the stimulants.


Last week I noticed sugar was making me anxious. Racy heart (and not the sexy type), shorter fuse, full-on saccharine suckiness. I’m a sweet tooth from way back so I danced around the issue and blamed my feelings of overwhelm on everything but sugar, but after conducting a few “experiments” on the days I was feeling particularly busy and overloaded, I found that – without a shadow of doubt – sugar was exacerbating the problem.

Caffeine has the same muddling effect, so take heed next time you’re feeling wound-up and on edge. That “reward” or “treat” you’re giving yourself in the hope of feeling better may just be the root of your antsiness.

Compassion + connection uncomplicates things.  


Have you ever noticed how voicing something that’s been swirling around in your head actually makes sense of it? The words come tumbling out and you realise you’ve found the answer to the very thing that’s been troubling you? Just saying the words to someone who cares is often enough to knock the top off the pressure.

Who are your big believers? Your mentors, co-conspirators, the Chief Champions of You? Can you get some brainstorming happening – perhaps lay a few different perspectives on the table? Share some mental mojo?

People love to help. All you gotta do is ask.

Take a technology hiatus.

Ahh, the old social media overload. I was feeling it in a major way a week or so ago (which is unfortunate, given I write a blog, Tweet and update the ‘Book with vigour… oh and work in Digital Communications by day and therefore spend EVERY DAY AND NIGHT ONLINE). (thank you, I needed to yell a bit).

The solution? Drop offline. Yeah, you heard me. Press the off button – with gusto. Lower your laptop lid. Retrain your thumb to do useful things like gripping the handlebars of your beach cruiser or massaging your lover. Contrary to popular opinion, thumbs were not invented to refresh the Twitter timeline on your iPhone 678 times a day.

Take a digital sabbatical when you’re uninspired by the infinite supply of information being catapulted your way.

When you realise you’re spending your days obsessively checking this and that and thinking “Why am I doing this?” it’s time for a break or a clean up. Unfollow people that are filling your feed with negativity. Unsubscribe from all those e-newsletters you delete anyway. Really think about whether you need a presence on every social networking site.

+ I’d love to hear your thoughts on this universal affliction. What triggers that “completely overwhelmed” feeling for you? What do you do to nourish your (hyper-excited) spirit and reclaim some semblance of sanity when you’re in over your head?

Image: Brooke Shaden

5 Comments to “How To Overcome Overwhelm and Save Your Sanity in The Process”

  1. Great post, just at the right time:)

    I have Evernote on my phone, but I hardly ever (hah!) use it. Maybe now is the time?

    When I’m overwhelmed, I try to cut back on my own expectations of myself. It really works to do a few tasks less than perfect. That way, I get more free time and I have more fun too! Sometimes when I decide to do something a little sloppily, I get so inspired I end up doing it much better in the end, but with more ease:)

  2. Marthe: Brilliant concept, I love the idea of deliberately lowering your expectations and doing something sloppily — and then exceeding your expections in the process! Everything flows better when we lower the pressure on ourselves. Thanks for adding your wisdom to the conversation. xx

    Bree: Great quote, LOVE that one! And yep, disconnecting is key – stops that scattered “needing to do a million things at once” feeling, doesn’t it. No excuses not to knuckle down and get the job done when the distractions are removed :) (and ease up and be kind to ourselves every once in a while too) xx

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