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How to Cope With Feeling Overwhelmed

Imagine a huge wave crashing into you. Repeatedly. That’s what it can feel like when you are overwhelmed. Your mind and emotions may be so inundated, you struggle to think and cope emotionally.

People who are feeling overwhelmed can experience mental sluggishness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, or racing thoughts and an impaired ability to problem solve.

Any of these effects, alone, can make us less effective and leave us feeling even more overwhelmed.

It has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.

If you ever experience such feelings, here are some key strategies to help:

1. Identify the cause

Ask yourself, “What one or two things, if taken off my plate would alleviate 80 per cent of the stress that I feel right now?” You may still be responsible for the task(s), but the first step is to identify the most significant source of stress.

If it’s a big project that’s almost done, finish it. Alternatively, break it down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources, or renegotiate the deadline if possible.

2. Set boundaries

This can include setting limits on the time you spend on a task or project, leaving the office by a certain time, or saying no to specific types of work.

More important, you need to set boundaries for your thoughts. If you think you cannot control your situation or that it is too unpredictable, your thoughts can easily escalate into panic or shutdown.

Challenge overwhelming thoughts with more realistic expectations. For example, you could say to yourself:

  • “I may not get it all finished today, but if I work on it or if I seek assistance, I will likely get it done;”
  • “I know I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, but if I take a break, I may feel differently about this when I return;”
  • “It seems overwhelming to me right now, but if I break it down into smaller parts, it may be more doable.”

3. Challenge your perfectionism

Perfectionists are especially prone to feeling overwhelmed, because they often make tasks or projects bigger than they need to be, which can lead to procrastination and stress.

As things pile up, the pressure grows, which can then lead to more procrastination and feeling more overwhelmed.

Fight back by asking yourself, “Are my expectations reasonable? Would I expect them of a valued friend or workmate? Is it going to place me under too much pressure?”

You will benefit by reminding yourself that putting in more effort doesn’t always equal better (or more perfect) outcomes. After a certain amount of effort, performance starts to deteriorate in line with a principle called Yerkes-Dodson law.

Instead of demanding perfection, ask yourself what would be good enough or acceptable.

4. Delegate

Do you have to do it all yourself? If the answer is no, then don’t.

Share the load. And don’t forget, you don’t have to be the boss to delegate. You can often simply ask colleagues and friends for help. They’ll give you the chance to return the favour sometime.

5. Talk out your feelings

An old proverb says, “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Talking through your issues with someone you trust can work wonders in helping you to break down an issue and identify solutions.

When you identify something that might help, write it down. Then write down the steps that will help you work towards it.

6. Stay healthy

To meet life’s challenges, you need to stay healthy. Eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep are the basic building blocks of resilience.

Take time out to engage in activities you enjoy and find rewarding. Engage in positive relationships with friends and family.

And don’t allow feelings of being overwhelmed to push you into destructive behaviour, like depending on alcohol, drugs, isolationism or anger to escape your problems. Such behaviours will only make things worse.


Due to the pressures of modern life, we all can feel overwhelmed from time to time. However, identifying causes, setting boundaries, challenging perfectionism, delegating, talking out negative thoughts and feelings, and working to stay healthy can only help.


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