By 10 pm on Thursday, I had hit my limit. I’d just finished my third music rehearsal of the day, and all I wanted to do was collapse in bed. But I still had several hours of homework to finish for Friday’s classes before I could even think about sleeping.
At this point in the semester, I knew I needed to make a change. I’d felt overwhelmed for weeks, but the stress had finally accumulated to the point that it was affecting my health and relationships. I knew if I didn’t change something soon, I risked a breakdown.
If you’re like a lot of college students, you’ve probably experienced something similar. And even beyond college, it’s common to find yourself overwhelmed with the demands of work, family, finances, and social life.
How can you stop feeling overwhelmed and regain control of your life?
That’s what I’m going to explore in this article. I’ll start by taking a look at why we feel overwhelmed in the first place. Then, I’ll share some tactics that I use to get back on track when the feeling of overwhelm sets in.
Before you can stop feeling overwhelmed, you need to figure out why you’re feeling overwhelmed in the first place.
There are many possible reasons, but there are a few that tend to crop up over and over:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these possible causes:
When you’re disorganized, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. This is because extreme disorganization means you’re constantly reacting to life. For instance, if you find yourself rushing to appointments at the last minute or starting each day with no idea what you need to do, overwhelm will quickly set in.
Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to become more organized. I’ll cover many of these strategies in more detail below, but I also suggest taking a look at our guide to staying organized and productive in college.
When I was in college, there were far too many nights where I had to write multiple papers, read dozens of pages, and cram for a music rehearsal. But this wasn’t because my professors gave unreasonable amounts of homework. These packed nights were entirely my fault, the result of my own procrastination.
If you feel like you’re drowning in work, procrastination is likely the culprit. While it can be a tricky habit to change, it is possible. The Pomodoro technique can be particularly effective, as well as becoming more organized (disorganization and procrastination often go hand in hand).
No matter how organized you are, it’s still possible to get overwhelmed if you take on too many commitments. There are only so many hours in a day, and you’re going to feel overwhelmed if you spend all of them working or rushing to meetings.
And if you overcommit yourself while also being disorganized and procrastinating, then you can get extremely overwhelmed.
Important Note: While one (or all) of the above is likely what’s causing you to feel overwhelmed, it’s also possible that your feelings stem from an anxiety disorder, depression, or another mental illness.
If you’re concerned this is the case, or if you’re feeling so overwhelmed that you struggle to complete regular daily tasks, then you should talk to a mental health professional. For help finding one, check out this guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Now that you understand why you’re feeling overwhelmed, let’s take a look at some ways to be proactive and live a more relaxed, manageable life.
Do a Reset
I mentioned earlier that being organized can help prevent you from being overwhelmed. Often, however, being overwhelmed is a sign that your organizational systems have fallen apart.
For instance, if you’re in the middle of a huge project such as a final paper or presentation, then it’s easy to neglect your calendar and stop using your to-do list. This is fine in the short-term; sometimes a project requires so much focus that you really don’t have the attention for anything else.
However, working this way all the time will turn your life into chaos. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a few days to reorganize your life. The details will differ depending on the systems you use, but here are some ideas for getting started:
- Go through your to-do list and get it up to date.
- Check your calendar to make sure it reflects all of your upcoming appointments, meetings, and other events.
- Clean and organize your physical workspace.
- Find items that you aren’t using and donate, recycle, or throw them away.
Often, these simple actions will be enough to make you feel organized and in control once more.
Reestablish Your Routine
Besides an organizational system, the other key facet of productivity is a system of habits and routines.
It’s easy to neglect your routines because you’re so busy that you “don’t have time.”
But instead of viewing routines as a waste of time, as something to cast aside when you’re busy, you should view them as an essential building block of working effectively. After all, routines are what ground you and give your life structure.
If your routines have fallen apart, then it’s best to add habits back in slowly. Otherwise, you risk getting even more overwhelmed and giving up. I recommend starting with a simple morning routine along these lines:
- Wake up early (whatever that means to you)
- Drink a glass of water
- Get some exercise (can be as simple as a short walk)
Once you’ve stuck with this simple routine for a few weeks, you can add in more complex activities like reading, writing, or practicing a skill.
Define Your Priorities and Say No to Everything Else
Every time you have an opportunity, it’s tempting to say yes. If you say no, you’re just missing out, right?
This mindset is destructive in the long run because it fractures your time and attention amongst dozens of low-value activities. To overcome the temptation to say yes to every opportunity, you need to define your priorities.
What really matters to you? What activities give you energy, bring you joy, or are simply necessary for your existence? Really think about this, and make a list. Enthusiastically say yes to any opportunity that fits into your priorities, but say no to everything else.
Not only will this prevent you from getting overwhelmed, but it will also allow you to focus more energy on the activities that truly matter. This means you’ll actually accomplish more in the long run.
Be Selfish (In the Right Way)
I have several friends and family members who always want to help others. Whenever someone needs something, they’ll help no matter what.
While this selflessness is noble, it’s possible to take it too far. If you spend all of your time living for others, then you risk neglecting yourself. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe it’s because you need to take some time for yourself.
I know this can be hard to do, that it can feel like you’re being selfish. But taking some time for yourself isn’t selfish; it’s self-care. And when you take some time to care for yourself, you’ll ultimately be more effective at helping others.
Ignore the Workaholic Cult
There’s nothing wrong with working hard; it’s essential for achieving your goals. But there’s a fine line between hard work and workaholism.
These days more than ever, there can be immense pressure to work all the time. Between checking work email on your phone, always having access to documents and presentations, and texting your boss in the evening, it’s also more possible than ever to work all the time.
The sources of this pressure can vary, ranging from company culture to peers to your boss to even the media. Wherever the pressure is coming from, however, you need to resist it. Working all the time is neither a healthy way to live nor an effective way to work.
The constant pressure to work can affect your sleep, your relationships, and your health. And often, the “work” you’re doing produces little of value. Staying up late to finish a big presentation is one thing, but staying up late just to monitor work emails that can almost certainly wait until morning is quite another.
If you’re feeling pressure to work all the time, ask yourself where it’s coming from. If you have a terrible boss putting the pressure on you, then you may need to find a different job with healthier work culture.
More commonly, however, you’re putting the pressure on yourself. In this case, you need to set some boundaries:
- Use an app like Freedom to block your email after a certain hour.
- Leave your work computer at work.
- Politely make it clear to coworkers and clients that they can only reach you during regular business hours.
- Find a hobby or join a club so that you have something else to do during the evenings.
Swallow Your Pride
If you’re a high-achieving, ambitious person, then you may be proud of your ability to juggle many commitments at once. And if you start to feel overwhelmed, you may try to “push through” because admitting that you’ve taken on too much feels like failure.
But tying your personal worth to how much you can do at once is toxic. If you only view yourself as the sum of what you can do, you’re going to feel terrible. Worse, this mindset will prevent you from scaling things back when you get overwhelmed, which can destroy you (and your relationships) with time.
So if you think that admitting you’re overwhelmed is a form of failure, swallow your pride. You’re more than the sum of your achievements, and it’s okay to cut back when you’ve taken on too much.
Practice Calming Techniques
Whether you’re overwhelmed or just a bit stressed, there are many simple things you can do to feel calmer right now. Here are a few that I find helpful:
- Deep breathing
- Taking a walk
- Aerobic exercise
- Taking a hot shower or bath
- Listening to a song I enjoy
And these are just a few of many possibilities. The goal is to find something that brings you calm.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
So far, I’ve focused on things that you can do by yourself to stop feeling overwhelmed. But in many cases, it’s worth seeking outside help.
This could be as simple as meeting with (or calling) a friend or family member to vent. Talking about it out loud can help you realize both why you’re overwhelmed and how you can fix it.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed because of work, talk to your boss. A good boss will listen to you and work to help you create a more balanced schedule. If your boss isn’t willing to help, it may be time to find a different job.
In the case of college, you can talk to your advisor, department chair, or one of the many other people available to help you succeed. These people are experts at making college work for you, so don’t overlook them.
Finally, don’t rule out talking to a counselor, psychiatrist, or medical professional. These people are expert listeners, and they can also help you figure out if you’re overwhelmed because of an illness (and help you get the treatment you need to feel better).
I hope this article has shown you some ways to stop being overwhelmed and get back to living your life.
Whether it’s resetting your organizational systems, learning to say “no,” or asking someone for help, being overwhelmed isn’t an inescapable fate. It’s something you can change with time and the right actions.
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