10 Steps for Getting Out Of Overwhelm

life preserverIt can be triggered by the seemingly simple task of picking out what clothes to wear or bigger challenges like decluttering your space, doing your taxes, finding a job, or planning a wedding.

Whether from circumstances that are forced upon you or – as is often the case – from saying ‘yes’ to too many things, being in overwhelm feels like drowning in the ocean. In fact the official test for overwhelm is to take a deep breath. If you swallow water, you’re in it.

Overwhelm is when mental, emotional or physical capacities are not able to keep up with the requests from the world. It is usually noticed when decisions – normally made wisely and easily – become difficult, stressful or irrational. Initial signs include irritability, negativity, self-downing and/or anger at others. More serious cases look like depression and include discouragement, hopeless language, shutting down or making no decisions at all.

Overwhelm can be triggered by any combination of the following:

  • Time pressured situations
  • Pressure from unrealistic expectations
  • Saying 'yes' to too many things
  • Mental tasks with a high degree decision-making
  • New learning or circumstances that demand extreme concentration
  • Situations that trigger social or performance anxiety
  • Emotionally-laden experiences that make thinking clearly difficult
  • Extreme physical challenges or even being hungry or tired

Shines a new light on your toddler's meltdown, your teenager's disorganization, your co-worker's lack of initiative and your own pissy mood doesn't it?

But overwhelm is more less about the specifics than about whether you tell yourself you can handle those specifics. That’s why having wise mantras are especially helpful. Consider these 10 steps to getting out of overwhelm and the mantras that go with them.

For immediate overwhelm take these 3 steps now:

  1. Take a Breathe… to counter the ramping up of anxiety and stress.
  2. Take your pulse... Ask yourself: Can I handle this? Sometimes overwhelm happens because we forget but if you really are losing it, then just acknowledge: I’m overwhelmed. Accepting this reality quickly and with kindness rather than beating yourself up is the best way to move through it with the least amount of damage.
  3. Take a break. Seriously!  Don’t just think about taking a break. Take one. That’s what overwhelm is trying to tell you! Stand up. Walk around. Get some water. Get a snack. Take a nap.


  1. After your break remind yourself: I’m doing my best.
  2. Reexamine your expectations. Does it have to be perfect?
  3. Prioritize. What to Do, Delete, Delay, Delegate
  4. Break tasks into specific action steps. Slice it thinner.
  5. Then Do one thing. (Which may even be asking for help. Just try to be nice about it.)
  6. Keep your head above water with these mantras from A Pocketful of Mantras:
  • How big of a deal is it?
  • It is what it is. (The overwhelm that is.)
  • Keep perspective.
  • Just keep swimming. (Thank you Finding Nemo)
  • Imperfect action is better than inaction.
  • I can do this.
  • Lighten up.
  • It will either work or it won’t.

10. Get smarter. The really wise work for dealing with overwhelm happens before or after a near-drowning experience. Avoid the water under some conditions and also become a stronger swimmer. Improve your skills. Think better organization and prioritization. Think practice. Think stress management.

Go deeper and uncover any beliefs that are pulling you under. It could be a time frame expectation, a perfectionism issue or a belief that you have to help everyone and say ‘yes’ to everything. Doing the work you need when you are not overwhelmed is crucial for getting smarter, lighter, happier and not drowning.

I hope this helps. Feel free to share your solutions below.
 Here’s to keeping your head above water. ~ Annie