How to Keep Calm and Carry On
We all feel overwhelmed from time to time, some more than others. Whether it’s a packed schedule, stressful person, new environment, long to-do list or a seemingly Goliath goal, sometimes it just feels like too much.
Note: We are talking about the general feeling of being overwhelmed that many/most people feel sometimes. We are not talking about clinical anxiety, which pops up more frequently and can prevent people from doing or enjoying everyday activities. If you believe you are experiencing serious anxiety, you may want to talk to a counselor or professional who can help you sort through your feelings and how to deal with them.
So, what can you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t move forward?
While each situation is different and we can’t solve your problems or complete your tasks for you, there are some ways you can calm yourself in the moment so you can hopefully get clear and take the next step.
Remember, you can do these things anytime, not just when you feel stressed. Fueling your body and mind well with some of these things to begin with can help put you in a better place mentally and physically and perhaps prevent you from getting to that overwhelmed point or feeling it as intensely.
When we are anxious or in fast-paced multitasking mode, we can resort to shallow breathing, where we breathe short, not full breaths. This kind of breathing can also cause us to feel more stressed.
Take a few moments or minutes to disconnect from what’s overwhelming you. Look away from your phone or other screens and go to a quiet place if you can—even if it’s just your car or a bathroom stall at work. Sit up straight, close your eyes and concentrate on your slow breathing.
A breathwork expert recommends a 60-second breathing exercise in which you take a long deep breath through your nose and exhale two to three counts longer than you inhaled.
Stretching, along with the mindful breathing we just mentioned, can help break us out of a stress slump. Our mind affects our body and vice versa. Movement can create endorphins that can help lift our mood and stretching helps relieve tension we may be holding in different areas of our body that we may not even realize.
Jocelyn K. Glei, who writes about getting creative work done in the “Age of Distraction,” shares these 6 simple yoga stretches for daily de-stressing that she and co-workers like to do at the office.
One of my favorite areas to stretch is the hip flexors, since we often hold a lot of tension in our hips, often thanks to sitting all day. Hip flexor stretches are good for our general health since we are stretching a tight area, but it also means we are relieving tension and hopefully some feelings of being overwhelmed. It’s also good because we are letting our mind focus on something else for a bit.
Walk it out
In the same vein of stretching, going for a walk is movement, which helps release endorphins and heightens our mood. It also helps get out some of that nervous energy—sometimes we feel even more overwhelmed because we have been in the same place or staring at a screen all day and need to get out and move. A walk outside is good so we can get fresh air and also hopefully sun, which can boost our serotonin, the “happy hormone.”
Listen to positive music
Lay down and de-stress with a calm song or few that you like. I’m partial to Enya—sorry, not sorry.
Or, let go and dance it out to some fun, feel-good tunes. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and Britney Spears’s old school hit “Crazy” always get me moving. Enya also works well for freeform interpretative dancing in your living room…so I’ve heard.
Get some good grub
When we’re overwhelmed, it’s tempting to want to grab candy, a tub of ice cream, bag of chips or whatever your indulgent go-to may be, but often those can leave our bodies and minds feeling worse.
Try to steer clear of caffeine since it can increase your body’s “flight or fight” response and make you feel more stressed.
Write it out
Sometimes being overwhelmed means we can’t think clearly because we are full of so many thoughts and feelings about what we “should” do or need to do, how we feel about others, how we think they may feel about us, and on and on.
Help stop the stressful cycle by getting these thoughts and feelings out of your head and on to paper. Just write as the thoughts flow; you don’t need to be organized, solve any problems or take next steps yet. Just help clear your mind of all the clutter so you can be in a better place to move forward.
“You can do anything but not everything.”
This quote from stress-free productivity guru David Allen is one of my favorites because it enforces the fact that we can do great things, but we cannot and are not meant to do everything. And that’s okay and makes sense because often great things cannot happen if we are consumed by trying to do all the things. And what good is doing all the things if we are left stressed and overwhelmed and can’t enjoy it?
After doing some calming exercises and perhaps writing out some of the thoughts and feelings in your head, think on this quote and prioritize. Think of what’s most important to you—it could be family, work, health, helping others, etc. Often that means saying “no” or “not now” to other things that may be good but are not in line with your priorities, time and mental, physical and emotional energy. Everyone’s priorities, limits and boundaries are different and that’s okay and what makes us human and unique. So think and visualize (and write down if you like so you have a clear reminder): What is the “anything” (or few major things) that you want to do? What will it require? What might you need to say “no” to in order to accomplish this thing or these things? Now move forward with your first step and come back to a calming exercise if you need to.
Feeling overwhelmed and lacking energy can sometimes go hand-in-hand, so you may also want to take a look at our post Lacking Energy? Consider What May Be Draining You.
Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.