Our ultimate guide to coping with overwhelm

A good way to think of overwhelm is like a backpack you have on while walking. Every now and then items get added to your backpack. Perhaps you’re adding them yourself, or maybe other people are stopping you for a chat and adding items while they do so.

Woman holding head

After a while, you notice the backpack is getting heavier and soon, putting one foot in front of the other feels impossible. You need to put the backpack down and rest, but you have to keep walking. The weight is crushing and you feel paralysed with no idea what to do.

Sound familiar? I think all of us can relate to this feeling. Various things can trigger this feeling, but often it’s when lots of things build up that make you feel stressed. When we’re stressed, our logical ‘thinking’ brain shuts down and our primal ‘animal’ brain takes over, putting us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Because of this shift, it can be hard to make decisions and think about a plan to tackle overwhelm. 

This is why, where possible, it can help to put plans in place before you reach that point of overwhelm. One place to start with this is noticing what triggers overwhelm for you.

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Noticing what leads to overwhelm 

Think back to the times you’ve felt overwhelmed recently – what do you think triggered it? Is there a particular area in your life where you experience this more – for example work or life admin? Or is it often a collection of little things building up from all areas of your life?

Keep the bigger picture in mind when thinking about overwhelm. What’s going on in the world that could be contributing to these feelings? For example at the time of writing, we are going through a global pandemic. Even if we’re not actively worrying about it, it’s an underlying threat that our mind is aware of. 

Try to recognise the way overwhelm feels so you can spot your red flags.

Perhaps it affects your sleep or you find you have more headaches? It might affect your thinking, leading to fast non-stop thoughts. Try to build up your self-awareness using tools like meditation, mood tracking (note how you feel each day or use an app like daylio) or journaling to help you spot your red flags. 

Tackling overwhelm 

When it comes to tackling overwhelm there are lots of approaches you can take. Here I want to share some steps that can help, but experiment with these and see what’s the most helpful for you.


This is a great place to start. You might find it helpful to write a list of all the things you need to do (or the items in your backpack!) and decide what is essential and what’s not. Something I recently did that helped was make a board in project management platform ClickUp and allocate different priority flags to different tasks so I can work through them methodically, focusing on the high priority tasks. If you need help with this in the workplace, it can help to chat to your line-manager.

Break tasks down into manageable chunks

This is about making those items fit a bit better in your backpack. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the size of a project and don’t know where to start. By chunking it down into manageable actions we can focus on one step at a time and feel more present, calmer and more capable. 

Maintain your boundaries

Our boundaries are often the first things to slip when we feel overwhelmed. We start to work longer hours to try and get everything done or perhaps we’re saying yes to people when we should say no and this is leading to overwhelm.

A couple of thoughts that can help here are: 

  1. If you can’t complete your work in the allocated hours, something needs to change. Speak to your line manager and get more ruthless with your prioritisation. 
  2. If you are saying yes to other people, you are saying no to yourself. And this will only make things more difficult for you in the long-run. 

Communicate with others

When we’re walking our path with a heavy backpack, it’s easy to feel isolated. If you look up and around though, chances are you’ll notice others on the path, heading in your direction. Tell other people how you’re feeling, share tips and communicate your boundaries with others. This alone can help make your backpack feel lighter.

Delegate and ask for help

It’s very easy to think ‘this will be easier/quicker if I just do it’, but every time we do this, we’re adding another item to our backpack. Instead, pause, look around and see if someone else can carry this item for you or help you carry it. This may be your team-mates at work or family and friends at home. Asking for help feels sticky for some of us, but when we do it, the weight that gets lifted from our shoulders is incredible.

Make space for rest

I know you think you have to keep walking with your backpack, but I promise you can put it down and rest. If you do this, you’ll feel stronger, more resilient and able to walk further when you get back to walking, you might even feel strong enough to help others with their backpacks. Self-care is vital, especially when you feel like you don’t have time for it. 

To help you make an action plan for the next time you’re overwhelmed, we’ve created an overwhelm helpsheet. Print this out, fill in the prompts and keep it somewhere safe so you can refer back to it when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Learn more about the effects of stress and find a coach who can help you manage it. 

Article updated 21/02/2023

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Senior Writer for Life Coach Directory and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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