Life can be challenging. With all the demands put upon you by work, family, relationships, external circumstances, and even yourself, it often feels as if you are Atlas, supporting the entire world upon your shoulders. The modern world is moving faster than ever, and it seems as if you will never catch up to all the competing priorities and challenges for your time. This experience can be best summed up in one word: overwhelm. Treading water in an endlessly uncompassionate sea of concerns eats away at your time, health, and happiness, robbing you of a fulfilling life.
If you feel this way, understand that you are not alone. The experience of moderate to extreme overwhelm is in no way uncommon. More importantly, however, is the understanding that in all likelihood, it’s not your fault. Feeling overwhelmed with life is essentially systemic in society—in other words, it’s a built-in given of modern life. This is because the fast-paced, technologically driven, high-achievement society has created what in Ayurveda is considered an environment of Vata derangement.
Vata is the principle of movement, activity, change, and transition. And while this concept is an essential component of life, when taken to its extreme, too much Vata creates a state of hyperactivity and imbalance. This atmosphere rattles your nerves, agitates your mind, and makes stability elusive. Understanding this is an important first step in coping with overwhelm; when you sense that the odds are stacked against you, you can have more self-compassion as you explore the following strategies to find calm in the chaos.
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Here are 10 tools to manage feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
1. Prioritize Self-Care
When the signs of overwhelm begin to show up in your life, an important first step is to recognize the need to put self-care high on your list of priorities. Don’t wait until your ship has begun to sink before taking concerted action to see to your well-being. At the first hint that your boat has sprung a leak and you’re starting to feel a little swamped in workload, family, or personal concerns, you need to pause, assess the situation, and make a commitment to finding coping skills that will help you remain balanced and centered.
2. Shift Your Perspective
It’s important to remember that the stress of overwhelm begins with a perception. Perceptions are subjective interpretations of situations and events. How you perceive things determines how the situation will affect you.
When you feel overwhelmed, try to focus on reframing the experience and see it from a different angle. Considering different interpretations of the situation often helps you take things less seriously. Also, recall the wise saying, “This too shall pass.” Everything on the material level of existence has a beginning, middle, and ending. Your thoughts and feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed by life—no matter how exhausting—have an expiration date, and one day it too will pass.
3. Breathe Deeply
The feeling of overwhelm and Vata-induced anxiety by their nature get you “amped up”, and in so doing, rattle the cage of your body’s stress response. This increases your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, stress hormones, muscle tension, and a host of other physiologically damaging effects to your mind-body system.
One of the best ways to counteract this sensation is to take slow deep breaths. Known as Pranayama in Yoga and Ayurveda, these breathing techniques help you to regulate your body’s energy levels and can profoundly sooth your mind and body when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Two techniques in particular, Ujjayi Breath (the Success Breath) and Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) can have a deeply soothing effect on your system when you’re feeling overwhelmed by life.
Meditation has countless benefits when it comes to countering the effects of overwhelm. First, similar to Pranayama, it is a powerful antidote to the body’s stress response. Second, in addition to slowing your breathing, it also calms the overactivity of your mind and emotions that are so common during periods of overwhelm. As your mind becomes increasingly calm, your body eavesdrops on that stillness, creating a feedback loop of tranquility and balance that lasts long after the meditation itself. Third, as you become more of an observer of your thoughts rather than being owned by them, your perspective shifts away from being a victim of your overwhelm to being the witness of it.
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5. Slow Down and Manage Your Time
By its nature, being emotionally overwhelmed often feels as if you are running out of time. Therefore, managing your time wisely is a very practical step to staying ahead of the anxiety and turmoil caused by too many competing priorities. Make a commitment to create a clear and efficient to-do list of tasks ranked by importance and tackle each one in a clear and methodical manner.
In addition, as counterintuitive as it sounds, try to slow down whenever possible. Rushing frantically only stirs up more activity, which degrades the quality of your work and relationships. Act deliberately and with awareness, and you’ll find that you are controlling your perceptions of time, rather than feeling like time is controlling you.
6. Move Mindfully
Another way to both lower the feeling of overwhelm and shift your perception of time is to practice mindful movement. Activities such as Qi Gong or Yoga can shift your awareness and your emotions into a much more settled and grounded state. This grounding works directly to counteract the “swirly” energy of displaced Vata and help you feel rooted in your body and the earth. The conscious movements of these similar practices also help to create the experience of “time dilation” in which you feel like you have more time due to the deepened quality of your awareness.
7. Unplug–Go On a Digital Fast
The modern world has become increasingly technologically dependent. Information is everywhere. Unfortunately, the digital age with all its devices, screens, social medial, and 24-hour accessibility is only driving more activity into your already overwhelmed minds. The high-information diet you keep yourself on can often starve you of the stability and balance you truly need.
Therefore, commit to a few hours, a day, week, or even longer of cutting the digital cord. Since you are probably so deeply plugged in, it may feel challenging at the start. But with time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to how much more settled your awareness is when it’s not bombarded daylong with unnecessary information.
8. Get Plenty of Sleep
Overwhelm can be mentally and physically exhausting. The inefficient use of mind-body energy brought about by prolonged chronic stress leaves you feeling wiped out; therefore, be sure to get plenty of quality sleep to restore and heal. Seven to eight hours of sleep per night is generally recommended for adults, but when you feel overwhelmed, longer periods may be needed.
In addition to regular meditation, consider adding a 20-minute midafternoon nap into your routine. Also, be sure to set the stage for restful sleep by creating a routine that helps your mind and body to get optimum benefit from your time in bed.
9. Know When to Walk Away
Sometimes the most nourishing choice for body, mind, and soul is to simply walk away. You cannot be everything to all people, and it’s important to know when you have reached your limit.
Be willing to draw a clear line for yourself and know when to say no. Doing so can sometimes be a defining and courageous moment in which you assert your need to no longer feel victimized by external circumstances and situations. In doing so, you reclaim your power to manage your life and awareness in a way that is nourishing and supportive for you, without the need to defend nor explain yourself to others. Or as Richard Bach lightheartedly puts it in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah: “The best way to avoid responsibility is to say, 'I've got responsibilities.”
Lastly, be willing to surrender the situation completely. This doesn’t mean giving up, but rather detaching from any particular outcome and turning everything over to universal intelligence, God, the nonlocal mind, or your higher self.
Surrendering is an act of humility in that you’re willing to turn things over to a power greater than yourself. You recognize that you don’t have to do everything and sometimes the greatest act of strength is the willingness to let go of your need to control all the things.
In Yoga, this is known as Ishwara Pranidhana or surrender to the divine. In this surrendering, you are stepping into the unknown and trusting that everything will be all right, because as A Course in Miracles reminds us, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles. One is not ‘harder’ or ‘bigger’ than another. They are all the same. All expressions of love are maximal.”
Feeling overwhelmed with life is normal. These tips are meant to help manage and overcome the thoughts and feelings so that you can focus on living a happy, healthy, and positive lifestyle.