10 ways to overcome overwhelm

We all experience it sometimes - racing thoughts, conviction that we just can't deal with it all, struggle to focus and decide what to do. Sometimes it's even accompanied by physical symptoms, like body tension, shallow breath, quick heart rate. At other times it can show up as tiredness and temptation to just quit it all. Overwhelm has many sources and forms.


An important thing to note is that our ability to respond to challenges is not fixed - it's affected by various factors, from our physiological state, what we've been thinking about, emotions associated with any other situation going on in our lives, the overall workload we have, our beliefs about ourselves etc. The good thing about it is that we can change our capacity, and at any point we have many ways of affecting how we feel. Below is a range of simple ideas that may help in short-term release of various types of overwhelm:

1. Take five deep breaths

I put it at the top of the list, because it's actually a great step to take before any of the other solutions below. It sounds so simple that many people just dismiss it (I know I've been guilty of it for a long time!). However, it really has amazing benefits. Even five mindful breaths will help to regulate our nervous system into a calmer, more relaxed state. For best results, bring your attention to the movement of the breath through your body, and try to breath in deep into your belly. Hold your breath for a moment on the inhale and on the exhale. Extending the exhales can have even stronger calming benefits.

2. Ask: what is the next step I can take?

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to simply take action. Any action will help you to distract yourself from worry and physical symptoms and increase your self-efficacy (the belief in your ability to deal with challenges). The challenge is that often overwhelm is related to overthinking and difficulty in making a decision. At that point it can be useful to drop it and just ask: 'What's the next thing I can do?' Not the best, nor 10 steps. Just one thing. Do it. Repeat.

3. Break down your projects into smaller tasks

A related type of overwhelm is when you are working on a big project, or have a big dream - and you simply don't know what needs to be done. Getting clarity on the component parts cannot be overestimated. Imagine you want to write a novel. Even for seasoned writers, this is a daunting task. Not to mention if you've never done it before! That's why it's crucial to have some plan. Otherwise, what is likely to happen is you sitting and staring into the blank space, and wasting a lot of time waiting for inspiration. Or, never even sitting down to try because of fear.

So the steps that it could require to write a novel include: brainstorm, work on characters, plot, language etc. In this case, it would be even more useful to break down each of those into even smaller chunks. Remember: the plan doesn't have to be perfect. It's just easier for our brains to think about what needs to be done if we see it as a list or a task board.

This is a strategy that may come before the previous one - or you can treat it as your first action!

4. Imagine the worst case scenario

Yes, you saw it right! If your overwhelm is linked to a lot of worrying about what may or may not happen - this can be a very useful thing to do. Facing your fears head-on can help you realise they weren't that bad to begin with. The crucial element of this technique is to also come up with the ways of how you would deal with it - brainstorm a few solutions of what you'd do if the worst happened. We are more resourceful than we think and we just sometimes forget it!

5. Make a list of either things you're grateful for or challenges you've overcome - or both!

On a similar note, making a gratitude list or list of things you've dealt with previously can help to remind you of the resources you have available. Whether it's through the increased belief in our efficacy by remembering our strengths. Or putting things into perspective and noticing we have a lot to fall back onto in our lives.

6. Cross out 10 items from your to-do list that aren't that important

If your long to-do list is giving you a headache - seriously consider whether there are things there that don't actually need to be done. We often add a long list of things we would like to do, or we assume they need attention, but on closer examination we realise they don't add much to our lives or our projects. So take some stress off, and cross out anything that isn't essential. Or put them on a 'parked' list if it's something that is not time-limited. Another thing to consider is if you can delegate some tasks to other people, whether in your team, or in your family.

7. Ask: what do I care about here?

Another reason for overwhelm can be because we're trying to be perfect and be on top of everything. It's impossible. Perfection is an unattainable ideal, and we can never be at our best in every area of our lives. So instead of trying, ask yourself what do you care about most in the given moment or situation. Is it more important to meet the work deadline because you're hoping for a rise? Is it more important to spend more time with your kids? Make your choice. And it can help you realise the things that actually aren't that important for you, but you're worrying about because other people told you you should.

8. Don't lose your 'why' from sight

To take it a step further, remind yourself what is your big 'why' in life. If you don't know that, it may be worth investigating! Of course it will change from time to time, and we may have a few depending on the area of our lives. It's a huge topic, but to get to the point: when you know your why, it's easier to bear challenges. And it's also easier to say no to things that aren't so aligned with what you care about.

9. Go for a walk

Whether you feel overwhelmed because you have a lot to do, or if you're feeling overwhelmed with emotions, nature is another simple remedy that shouldn't be underestimated. Our bodies have evolved in nature, and studies show that even looking at plants helps to relax our nervous system. Taking a few mindful breaths whilst you're at it can only boost the benefits. Additional gains can come from walking barefoot outside, and from doing exercise outdoors.

Remember, even when you feel pressed for time - you'll be much more effective when you come back to your work afterwards! And creative solutions are also more likely to pop into your mind when you're out on a walk.

10. Talk to someone or even better - hug them

It's always a great idea to talk to another human being you like. As social creatures, we're literally wired to co-regulate each other. To get the most out of it, ask the other person beforehand whether they feel they have space for it and choose someone who is relatively calm at that time. Hanging out with stressed people won't be too helpful! And if you have someone you can ask for a hug, consensual touch sends a powerful signal to our body to wind down.

Final thoughts 

I hope you've found some ideas on this list useful. Remember, if we're constantly experiencing overwhelm - it may be a sign that either we're not managing our priorities well, or that our capacity to deal with oncoming challenges is compromised or underdeveloped. There are many factors that can impact that, and of course sometimes life deals us a lot of unexpected curveballs. We can, however, develop better ways of responding to them, which in turn will make us feel more capable and empowered. Sometimes we can't see alternative ways for ourselves though, and that's where working with a coach or other professional can be very helpful.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Oxford OX4 & London NW5
Written by Malgorzata (Margot) Zwiefka, Somatic coach
Oxford OX4 & London NW5

I am a psychologist, somatic coach and art therapist. I love supporting people who want to create more empowered and fulfilled lives. My main areas of specialism are arts, creativity, pursuing a career with passion, as well as uniting our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.

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