What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 27, 2016
What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed

Did you wake up with a sinking feeling this morning? Maybe your to-do list got longer. Maybe you’re frustrated by lack of time. Maybe you’re tired because you didn’t get to bed early. Whatever it is, you’re overwhelmed.

Related: How to Go From Overwhelmed to Motivated in 3 Seconds

When you feel overwhelmed, you feel powerless to change anything and often look for someone else to blame. It’s your boss putting too much pressure on us, your colleagues not pulling their weight, clients being too demanding….

But that feeling of being overwhelmed or stressed out is not directly related to the size of your to-do list—it’s your perception of your ability to cope with that volume of work. When people say they feel overwhelmed, they are often stuck in a negative downward spiral.

So how do you get out of it? The first step is to recognize where to place blame. You have created that negative emotion within your own body. You created that extra muscle tension, those sweaty palms, that pounding heart. Not someone else. You.

Except most people don’t realize they are the architects of their own internal emotional state. Instead they are stuck in a victim or blame position. They claim something is being done to them to make them feel a particular negative emotion or stress. That’s simply because they don’t have control of their emotional state.

Without emotional control, it’s easy for other people to trigger a reaction in you; you will always be at risk of feeling overwhelmed, feeling stressed. But it’s still you producing that reaction. You need to accept the fundamental truth that you created the emotion yourself. You need to learn to stop reacting and control your response—to become “response-able.” That is, able to respond rather simply react.

There are 34,000 distinguishable emotions, which means there are roughly 17,000 negative emotions. But most people cannot accurately identify which of the 17,000 negative emotions they are actually experiencing. So when you claim to be feeling overwhelmed, you might actually be experiencing something else entirely: helplessness, anger, frustration, irritation, a sense of defeat or despair.

If you want to actually change any of these emotions, you need to become more precise in identifying the exact emotion you are experiencing. You need to be able to discriminate what you are feeling right now from similar, related emotions, not from an intellectual perspective but from an experiential perspective. For example, anger is a much more activated emotion with a higher heart rate than overwhelm, and anger might involve greater tension in the shoulders and a clenching of the fists, whereas overwhelm might involve a more slumped shoulder position and open hands.

By considering the experiential differences between specific emotions, you will improve your “emotional literacy.” With improved emotional literacy, you can start to come up with a more effective strategy for dealing with those negative emotions. Moving away from anger requires a different approach than moving away from overwhelm. For example, anger might require you to reduce or release some energy, whereas overwhelm might require you to increase our energy. So when you use a term as vague as “stress” or being “overwhelmed,” it’s so imprecise and makes a resolution very difficult.

Taking responsibility for your own emotional state, identifying which emotions you are actually feeling and taking active steps to change your emotional state are key to feeling less overwhelmed. Take back control and start living a healthier and more productive life.

Related: The 6 Emotional Enemies Inside Your Mind

Alan Watkins

Dr. Alan Watkins is CEO and founder of Complete Coherence. Both physician and neuroscientist, he has been a coach to many top CEOs and business leaders for over 15 years. He is the best-selling author of Coherenceand 4D Leadership(Kogan Page).