4 Steps to Conquer the Overwhelm

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There are times when your mind is racing out of control from stress, you’re feeling the wild horses of anxiety gallop in, and you hope the earth will open up and take you out of your misery.

We’ve all been there.

Here are 4 steps that can bring you from a place of overwhelm to to a head space where you can deal: 

#1. Breathe. *REALLY* breathe.

How often we forget to fully implement this simple yet crucial step! When we breathe deeply, we not only calm our system but take our mind out of crisis mode. Stop whatever you are doing and focus in on the sound and rhythm of your breath. Inhale and exhale fully until your heart rate slows. Bonus move: Try tilting your face upward 45 degrees while you do this. I find it naturally tugs your mouth into a slight smile in this position.

#2. Strip away the story.

Emotions cloud our ability to separate fact from fiction. While our feelings are completely real to us and valid, we have to question the story we’re telling ourselves that’s causing our distress. Is it really true?

Suppose we are in conflict with someone. Instantly, we think we’re experts in interpreting their facial expressions, the meaning behind their words, and accurately predicting their next moves. We are the only ones to have successfully entered another person’s head, right? Nice try. While we have the capacity for complex ideas and understanding, we also have fantastic imaginations that can construct entertaining stories. Imagination is a wonderful quality in the creative process, but can create unnecessary drama and pain during stressful situations.

To cut through chatter and get to the facts, try analyzing your circumstances like a scientist. What scientists think of or consider as “real” are things they can prove. Strip away all the story and see what facts are left. What remains is likely a much tamer situation than originally thought.

#3. Slow your roll.

Determine if any action is required. If not, don’t do anything right now! Most of what we worry about works itself out without any action on our part, or we find out that what we were worrying about isn’t as dramatic as we’d assumed (see Step 2).

But, wait, don’t we have to act quickly when things go sideways, put out the fire before it spreads? No. Or at least not until we can confirm we are about to take decisive and supportive action, as opposed to simply reacting. Our primitive brain’s job is to keep us safe, so when there’s a perceived crisis, our instinct is to react. That fight or flight stuff worked really well for our ancestors when there was a tiger chasing them through the jungle. But unless we are in immediate danger, it’s usually to our detriment that our mind urges us to react. I think we can all agree that most decisions made from a state of overwhelm never have the best results.

So resist the urge to “do something.” Overwhelm energy—that extra energy you don’t know what to do with but is screaming to get out—feels crappy. Unfortunately, we often do or say things that are destructive or unsupportive in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort—like lose ourselves in junk food or take out our frustrations on someone else. Instead, do something active. Take a brisk walk, tackle some yard work…punch the air if you have to. Once you expend that energy, you’ll feel more relaxed and less reactive.

#4. Unleash your angst without causing casualties.

Still charged up? One way to freak out responsibly is to write down all of your friction-building feelings about the situation. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and let it all out, anything that you’re thinking. Voice record it if that feels more natural to you. Don’t stop until time is up. This exercise gives you permission and freedom to express how you feel and to identify what it is really bothering you. Then, tear up or delete your entry, allow yourself to let it all go, and move on.

While these tips can’t wipe away adversity, they can at least help squash overwhelm so we can deal with situations from a more centered place. One in which we can tell our brain’s crisis center, “Hey…thanks for looking out for me and being ready for action. But I’ll take it from here.”

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