17 Things to Do When You’re Feeling Totally Overwhelmed

The other day, I was flat-out swamped, stressed, and feeling down.   

I’d been up late writing a couple of columns for Inc.com and then putting the final touches on the Big Optimism newsletter.

(Ironic to feel depressed while writing about optimism, isn’t it? Let’s continue.)

When I was finally ready to turn in, the baby woke up. It was my turn to feed her. I barely slept.

At the office, I had to give a big presentation–it went well, but I barely had time to breathe afterward. With a full day’s worth of urgent tasks to attend to, I was tired, strung out, not feeling good.

My solution? I left everything behind. I went for a walk around the streets of New York City. It was freezing cold. I was thinking out loud half the time, just working through all the things on my mind. I probably looked like a crazy person.

After an hour, I was back at work and getting stuff done.

Sometimes we all get overwhelmed. The trick is to find a way to reset quickly, so you can recover and get back to what you need to do. Here are 17 of the best tactics to make that happen.

1. Take an emotional time out.

Read an engrossing book that has nothing to do with work. Go to a movie if you can swing it (seriously).

The point is to take an hour or two away from your problems–physically somewhere else, if possible. You’ll remember that there’s a vast world out there, and maybe put yourself back in perspective.

2. Exercise.

Same idea here, but with a personal physical component. Hit the gym. Go for a run or a swim. Take a spin class. Whatever it is that you do for exercise, work it into the middle of the day, so you can separate the difficult morning from the rest of the afternoon.

3. Take a physical time out.

About No. 2–working out during the day is great, but of course it’s not always practical. Do you even have a gym at work, for one thing? (I’ve had offices that did, and many that didn’t.) Ergo, my decision to walk around New York in 22-degree weather.

Make yourself move a bit, and once more, physically and emotionally separate yourself from your worries.

4. Breathe deeply.

This solution is much shorter, and often way more practical. Just take a full 120 seconds to breathe in and out, very deeply–maybe six or seven breaths per minute. By the end, everything will seem a little bit better.

5. Be mindfully thankful.

If you’re reading this, you have a lot to be thankful for. You’re alive in the United States or another great country. You’re using a device that lets you connect with the entire history of the world’s knowledge, basically for free. Hopefully you’ve got people in your life who love you–I’ll bet you do even if you don’t realize it right away. 

You know what? Things are pretty good, no matter how rough they might seem at any particular moment. Take a minute, reflect, and reset.

6. Pray or meditate.

Related to No. 5, of course. I could write a book on my whole personal faith journey (maybe I will someday). Let’s just say for now that there’s a Jesuit church called St. Francis Xavier a few blocks from my office, and it’s come in handy a few times. Whatever is your way of trying to connect with a higher power, spend a few minutes doing it.

7. Phone a friend.

My college buddy Griff is one of my best friends in the world. He lives a few hundred miles away, our kids were born more than a decade apart, we’re in entirely different lines of work–plus he’s a great golfer and I barely can swing a club.

In other words, it’s awesome. Sometimes you just need the chance to talk with someone you’re close with who is completely unrelated to whatever momentary drama is going on in your life.

8. Procrastinate.

I know that virtually every other article will tell you to tackle things right away–but I know I read an article somewhere that says that can be flat-out wrong. I’ve written or ghostwritten about 20 books now, and I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve worked my way through a writing challenge simply by blowing it off for a little while.

It’s amazing how your subconscious can solve problems for you when you ignore them for a bit.

9. Delegate.

Do you have to do it all yourself? If the answer is no, then don’t. Share the load. And don’t forget, you don’t have to be the boss to delegate. You can often simply ask colleagues and friends for help. They’ll give you the chance to return the favor sometime.

10. Talk things over with your significant other.

I try not to bore my wife with every little problem that comes up in my work. However, she’s a great sounding board, and frankly smarter than I am in a lot of areas. Talking for a few minutes with her makes things less stressful. (I try to return the favor, but honestly I think I get more than I give in this particular department. Sorry, honey.)

11. Write stuff down.

Sometimes things become more manageable just by writing them down. A top military officer I knew kept a journal during the invasion of Iraq. He so worried and stressed that he only had time to write one haiku per day, but it helped him keep his head on straight.

Here’s a sample from May 11, 2003, in case you’re curious, about realizing we might have gone to war over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t actually exist:

Where is WMD?

What a kick if he has none

“Sorry about that.”

12. Take a nap.

Everything looks better in the morning. It also looks better after a 30-minute catnap. Granted, this isn’t always the most practical suggestion if you’re working for someone else, but if you’re your own boss, it’s awesome. (To my former co-worker–you know who you are–we all knew that you took naps on the couch in the second floor lounge. Nicely done.)

13. Map your progress.

I had a friend who used to create to-do lists that included things she’d already done, just so she could go back and cross them out. I tried it once, just to put in perspective how much I’d accomplished during a particularly rough day. It worked.

14. Drink (water).

Studies have shown increasing your water intake improves your mood. Even though it’s supposed to take longer than just drinking a bottle or two, I find that water has a placebo effect. It makes me feel better because I know I’m doing something small that’s health-positive.

15. Turn stuff down.

Sometimes you have to say no. Sometimes you even have to say, “I know I said yes before–but I have to say no now.” Of course, you don’t want to make a practice of this and develop a reputation for unreliability. Still, maybe it’s better than getting overwhelmed and getting nothing done.

16. Accomplish something different.

Sometimes procrastination strategies can actually be long-term productive. Maybe you don’t finish the task you’d put on your to-do list for today, but you find you’re in the mood to tackle something else that’s been nagging at you.

As long as the timing on the first task isn’t too critical (I mean, if you’re a trauma surgeon, maybe skip this suggestion), and you actually follow through on the second task, there’s little harm done.

17. Clean things up.

I’ve been reading and implementing The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Let’s just say I’m a convert. Clearing your living and working spaces has a profound calming effect. Take a few minutes to straighten up something that’s bothering you, and you might see things in a whole new light.


About the author: TheFounder
As you can see I am the founder of Avantribe. I created this for others to help themselves grow and care for themselves on this journey we call life. I'm passionate about personal development mentally, physically, and emotionally. We typically have a hard enough time juggling one of those things. Luckily, we are in the information age and are so fortunate to have this kind of knowledge at our fingertips. 💜

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