What do you actually do when you’re overwhelmed?

Aaron and I went away last weekend for a much-needed rest and at first, I found it really hard to switch off. I’m just a few weeks off submitting my PhD and things feel really intense. I knew I needed a break and it had been in the diary for months but resisting the adrenaline-fuelled urge to make progress towards my deadlines wasn’t easy. I lay outside in the sun trying to fake my body into chilling but internally I was tense and jumpy.

As we talked about it, Aaron shared an analogy with me that I found really helpful. He told me that sometimes we can’t take the heat away from a boiling kettle, but we can take the lid off to prevent it boiling over. The deadlines aren’t going anywhere so the pressure was still on, but this weekend away was all about finding ways to take the lid off.

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We did manage to do that, and by Sunday afternoon I was able to lie in the sun and doze off. I’m back into the intensity of work now, but having connected, relaxed and broken a long run of poor sleep I’m a little better equipped to deal with it. Sometimes we simply can’t turn off the heat just yet, but we can find ways to take off the lid and prevent ourselves reaching boiling point, so today I wanted to share with you nine proven ways to alleviate some pressure. I hope at least one of them works for you!

1. Get Away

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Picture from the personal collection of Rachel Hughes Shah.

In my experience, when I’m close to boiling point nothing works quite as well as physically getting away from the place of pressure and taking a brief break from the demands and responsibilities overwhelming me. It’s much easier to say “no” to further requests when you’re not physically present and I believe that the change of scene helps us relax faster too.

I know that it is also true that there is little that seems as unrealistic as figuring out how to get a break when you’re overwhelmed, and it takes serious courage to stop and rest when there is so much to be done in so little time, but it is nearly always both possible and worth it. Pushing through is a false economy.

2. Dial Back and Cancel Commitments

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Photo by Pixabay user FirmBee

When you’re close to boiling point it is both legitimate and important to dial back on as many commitments as you possibly can. It’s easy to get hung up on whether this is really justified, but I would encourage both you and myself not to! The point is that when our top priorities are taking up all of our capacity, then we can’t do other things as well without either compromising on those priorities or tipping ourselves over the edge. The best way to stay true to your most important commitments and to protect what you truly have to offer to your community is to do less.

3. Do Life Giving Things

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Photo by Pixabay user Stock Snap

The counterpart to the previous point is that sometimes the best way to alleviate some pressure is to do something that really makes you feel alive. Often when times are pressured we deprive ourselves of the things that give us the very energy we need to keep going. How do you normally get refreshed? How do you get energised? How do you get restored?

For me, physical exertion in a sunny and beautiful wilderness usually does the trick. For one of my friends, an episode of trashy TV is all she needs. For someone else I know, lying in total silence helps. For others it’s cooking or creating or connecting.

Whatever it is for you, making time for life giving things will make you far more productive than depriving yourself of them ever will.

4. Lower Your Standards

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Photo by Pixabay user Stock Snap

When you can’t eliminate commitments, sometimes you just need to lower your standards. You can’t not eat, for example, but you can eat food that takes less energy to cook. We had filled pasta with a little butter and cheese for dinner last night. Was it healthy and affordable gourmet ethically-sourced fare? Nope, but it took me all of five minutes to prepare. I’ve been known to have popcorn for dinner. Or cereal. Don’t pretend you can’t relate!

Maybe your nephew’s birthday present this year will be a voucher. Maybe you’ll send a text to support a friend instead of making a phone call. Maybe your kids will get a little less alone time with you this month. Maybe (almost certainly!) I won’t post on this blog in the next few weeks.

We’ll all live, though, right?

5. Ask For Help

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Photo by Death to the Stock Photo

Ask for help, not least because if you’re cancelling your commitments and lowering your standards, you might need to let others know why! Also, people are amazing if you just give them some guidelines to work with. One of my friends is battling cancer at the moment and just watching her navigate asking for help so gracefully and with such dignity has hugely inspired me.

6. Prioritise Sleep

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Photo by Pixabay user Wokandapix

I know this is not possible for everyone. If you have a baby or suffer from insomnia, then lack of sleep might be what is causing the overwhelm in the first place. In most cases, though, lack of sleep is caused by trying to create more hours in the day to fit in all our demands and responsibilities. This does not work! We achieve more, in both the short run and the long run, when we have had enough sleep. Cutting out sleep in order to achieve more is analogous to deciding not to fill up your car’s fuel tank on a long journey in order to save time and get there faster. You definitely won’t get there faster and you might not get there at all. Cutting sleep might be worth it for a night or two, but beyond that I would say it’s always worth making the tough call and sacrificing something else instead.

7. Do a Brain Dump

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Photo by Pixabay user picjumbo

Our brains get overwhelmed when we ask them to process too much information at once which is one reason why the brain dump is such a powerful exercise. Take a piece of paper and write down everything that is in your brain. Keep going until you can’t think of anything else without repeating yourself. Draw sub categories and branches off your umbrella topics if you need to. Then take a step back and feel validated – what a weight you were carrying around with you!

Aaron and I find that simply writing everything down relieves the pressure, but if you want to go to the next step then it can be helpful to categorise or prioritise things. I often find that once I’ve seen the list of how much I’m feeling overwhelmed by I’m much more willing to cancel some things because I have finally realised that it is simply unrealistic to just carry on.

8. Schedule Uninterrupted Time for Your Priority

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Photo by Pixabay user Stock Snap

Choose the one thing that is most important to you and schedule uninterrupted time to do that thing as often as you need to in order to get it back under control. It won’t solve all your problems, but getting the most important area of life back to how you want it is a really powerful step which can increase your capacity and create space, momentum and beautiful knock-on effects in other areas of life.

9. Set a Deadline

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Photo by Pixabay user 44833

We can usually face anything for a short period of time, but when overwhelming things go on indefinitely they can crush us. Knowing this, it is sometimes worth looking at a situation and creating an arbitrary deadline for it. Aaron and I have sometimes done this as a kind of safety valve on the adventurous risks we take together and we have found it has worked well for us and for some of our friends. Here’s a fill in the blank sentence to help you do it for your situation:

If [overwhelming situation] hasn’t changed [in this specific way] by [date] then we will [action you will take to change the situation, review it or get help.]

For example:

  • If we I haven’t got an income of [amount] by [date] then we will reduce our outgoings by moving somewhere cheaper.
  • If I haven’t found a job that I’d enjoy by [date] then I’ll apply for part-time menial work to relieve the pressure.
  • If our kiddo doesn’t respond to this approach by [date] then we’ll try [alternative approach].
  • If we haven’t resolved this issue by [date] then we’ll go for counselling.
  • If this ministry hasn’t become [named characteristics] by [date] then we’ll review what’s happening with [trusted advisors].

Obviously this isn’t always possible, but it’s surprising how often we can alleviate some of the pressure on ourselves simply by deciding that we won’t carry on like this forever.

Force a Crisis Before There Is a Crisis

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Photo by Death to the Stock Photo

A planned surgery is safer and easier to recover from than an emergency surgery, which is why when doctors realise that surgery is inevitable, they schedule one in rather than just waiting until that part of the body collapses. Applying any of these ideas in an overwhelming situation might feel like forcing a crisis, and maybe you think that you can keep going without doing so, but I would urge you to consider whether avoiding a planned crisis will allow an emergency crisis to develop instead.

Each of these ideas takes courage, because when you’re feeling that your capacity is maxed out taking any action not directly related to getting through another day is overwhelming. It is possible to take alleviate some pressure though, and I have never found it to not be worth it.


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Featured image by Death to the Stock Photo

The phrase “Force a Crisis” is taken from Michael Hyatt’s podcast episode Shave 10 Hours of Your Work Week