3 top tips for overcoming overwhelm

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘overwhelm is to have such a strong emotional effect on somebody that it is difficult for them to resist or know how to react’.
 
I don’t think I know anyone, who at one point or another, hasn’t felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with home life, overwhelmed at work, overwhelmed in their relationship, overwhelmed by the world in general – most of the time – overwhelmed by a combination of everything our far too commonly busy lives present us with.
 
Sometimes, overwhelm doesn’t need to be just one thing; one big transition or life event. Overwhelm can come as a result of lots of smaller, seemingly menial things, if left unchecked, stack one on top of the other, until the stack gets wobbly and unstable. The straw that broke the camel’s back might end up being something as mundane as being stuck in traffic or stubbing a toe.
 
A helpful analogy is that of a bucket (our capacity), filling with water (our daily stresses) and when we open the tap to let some out (us using a coping strategy), our bucket doesn’t overflow. By regularly opening our taps (using coping strategies), our water (stress), doesn’t overflow and we reduce our risk of becoming overwhelmed. 
 
The feeling of overwhelm can be all-consuming – a sense of not being able to see the wood for the trees or feeling like a deer in headlights – stunned in to not being able to clearly think or take any action. Does this resonate with you? 
 
Below are three top tips to overcoming overwhelm:

1. Focus on your breathing

If this feeling of overwhelm has crept up upon us, it may well feel close to panic – if you find yourself in this state, the best action is to focus intently on your breathing. Focussing on breathing will help to bring calm and allow you to think more clearly about what’s next and remind yourself you’re safe. It’s always a good idea to find a breathing exercise or two that works for you, to keep in your back pocket. Some examples are:

  • Use your finger to draw an invisible square in the air… starting at the bottom corner – on the first side, inhale for a mental count of four, as you draw your finger across the top, hold your breath for four, when you take your finger down the second side, exhale for four and on the bottom to close the square, hold your breath again. Repeat another four squares or as many as you need.
  • The 4 7 8 technique – this is where you close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a count of four, followed by holding your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. Repeat this exercise another four times or as many as you need. 

2. Notice your stress warning signs

Perhaps, thankfully, you’ve not yet reached this panicky, overwhelmed state, but you can sense you’re not far from here; have you noticed some stress warning signs? What are yours? For some, it might be noticing that you’re biting your nails more, comfort eating or feeling more easily agitated. Maybe you’ve noticed yourself withdrawing from family or friends or feeling demotivated or aggressive. Take some time to really consider what your warning signs look like for you and then consider what strategies you can put in place when you notice these increasing.

What things might you want to do to better cope? Taking regular walks, talking to someone you can trust, stretching, reading? Whatever helpful coping strategies you might have, write them down and practice them.

3. Identify helpful coping strategies

If you’re feeling well right now, calm and not particularly stressed, it’s a great time to check in with yourself. What basic things are you doing now to keep yourself well? Perhaps these are the things that will be first to go out of the window when the stress increases but they’re the things you absolutely need to keep hold of to keep that tap open. For me, it’s getting enough sleep, a morning walk, regular meals and connecting with nature.

When stress arrives, it’s so easy to skip the walk and lie in bed longer in the morning. Ultimately, I know this is self-sabotaging behaviour, I know that these things are my very basic non-negotiables of self-care to practice daily in order that I can better manage stress. What are yours?  


Knowing some breathing techniques, raising awareness of your stress warning signs and identifying your helpful and unhelpful coping strategies can all be great steps towards managing stress and overcoming overwhelm. Spending time when you have a clear head really thinking about how to have a consistent dose of your helpful coping strategies and getting some plans in place for when your warning signs appear will give you an excellent head start. 

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Peterborough, Cambs, PE6

Written by Emma Humphrey Coaching (Dip. Personal Performance Coaching)

Peterborough, Cambs, PE6

Emma holds a distinction level diploma in personal performance coaching (via the Coaching Academy). Her mission is to support people through coaching to be well, feel well and live well through making changes in life, career, mind, and body.

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