Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that “what goes up must come down.” However, stress and feeling overwhelmed is not bound by the constraints of physics—it just goes up and up and up. Psychotherapists say that many of us wind up amplifying the mental health harms already placed upon us by our jobs and relationships—even when it’s the last thing we want.
In 2015, the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey revealed more and more adults were feeling “extreme stress,” and that average stress levels were slowly increasing. With that stress came increased stress-related symptoms and overall poor health caused by such a huge mental strain. Many respondents admitted to partaking in unhealthy eating habits, not sleeping well or losing patience with loved ones because of the stress, too.
When you feel overwhelmed, you may react in ways that not only don’t help the situation, but that even make it worse. Maybe you’re oblivious to these patterns, or you know what they are but struggle to do anything about them.
Feeling overwhelmed at work can make you feel stressed, confused, trapped, and at risk of burnout. When you experience overwhelm at work it can be difficult to manage your time, energy, and focus. Overwhelm can affect your ability to think and act clearly and rationally. Feeling overwhelmed at work can also prevent you from making effective decisions and taking appropriate action.
To stop feeling overwhelmed at work it’s important to understand the triggers. When you feel overwhelmed at work, causes include having too much too to do, tight deadlines, work pressure, or stress. Some of the best ways to handle feeling this overwhelmed actually fall into two camps—neither of which have anything to do with working until your brain melts: taking action to get a handle on your work, and taking a break so you can keep working to the best of your abilities.
The following are common self-sabotaging mistakes overwhelmed people tend to make. There are practical solutions for each that will help you feel like you’re on top of things and do a better job of navigating your most important tasks and solving problems.
1. You think you don’t have time for actions that would help you
People often have great ideas about things that would help them feel better and more in control — for example, hiring someone to help around the house, practicing self-care, seeing a therapist, taking a vacation, or organizing a game night with friends. However, they dismiss them because they think they’re too busy or that it’s not the right time, waiting to take those actions until a more ideal moment that typically never arrives.
Instead of thinking about what would be ideal, choose the best option that’s easily available to you now. Perhaps you don’t have time to research the best therapists by interviewing multiple candidates, but you do have time to pick someone who meets a few of your criteria and try a couple of sessions with them.
When you have good ideas but don’t act on them, it can lead to a sense of powerlessness or incompetence. You may also have endless open loops of “shoulds” and waste time and energy thinking the same thoughts over and over again. Plus, when you don’t act, you miss out on the benefits you’d accrue from trying your ideas. By acting to help yourself, you’ll get practice finding doable solutions, feel more self-efficacy, and reap those benefits sooner.
2. You interpret feeling overwhelmed as a weakness
Lots of times, we feel overwhelmed simply because we need to do a task we’re not very familiar with, or because a task is high stakes and we want to do a superb job of it. By itself, this isn’t necessarily a problem. We can often work through the task despite those overwhelmed feelings.
However, sometimes we get self-critical about the very fact that we feel overwhelmed. We think: “I shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by this. It’s not that hard. I should be able to handle it without it stressing out.” When you’re self-critical, you become more likely to procrastinate, because not only does the task trigger feelings of overwhelm, it also triggers shame or anxiety about having those feelings.
Some people react to this shame and anxiety in other ways. They might approach the task with extra perfectionism, or they might become more reluctant to ask for tips and advice from others. It’s important to replace your self-criticism with compassionate self-talk, which I’ve provided specific strategies for previously.
3. You navigate towards your dominant approaches and defence mechanisms
When we get stressed out, we tend to get a bit more rigid. Because we have less cognitive and emotional bandwidth to consider other options, we become less flexible about adapting to the demands of the situation and default to our dominant ways of handling things.
We all have values, but we don’t always use them to our advantage. For example, thoughtfulness can turn into overthinking, self-reliance can morph into micromanaging or doing everything yourself, having high standards can lead to being picky or perfectionistic, and resourcefulness can steer you toward doing things in unnecessarily complicated or unconventional ways.
When you’re overwhelmed, make sure you’re matching your values to the demands of the situation. Does the particular task or problem need…? (Insert your dominant attribute, such as thoughtfulness or self-reliance.) Or would a different approach be better suited to the circumstances?
4. Wasting time and energy on things you have no control over
No one controls everything. It’s impossible. Some things are simply beyond our influence. Don’t waste your time on those things. Instead focus on areas that you can influence or change. For example, you can’t control whether the company you work for will merge or not.
Don’t waste your energy or time worrying about it. Allot yourself 5 minutes of worry time, then shift gears. Move on and get over it. Focus on what you can do to make the situation better. Figure out what skills would make you more valuable to the organization. Explore different options so that you are prepared when the decision is finally made and announced.
5. You’re Multitasking
When you feel like there’s way too much on your plate, your first instinct will probably tell you to knock out more than one task at once. But that, my friends, is an urge to ignore. While we’re multitasking we may feel as though it makes us high-achieving, it actually makes us prone to even more mistakes and increasing our feelings of being overwhelmed. Even though answering emails and writing up a project at work may make you feel productive for, like, 10 minutes, it pays to give each task (and, more importantly, yourself) some room to breathe.
Finally, just remind yourself—it will all get done. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and with the help of these strategies, you’ll be sure to get there with your work done well.
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