by Paul Casey

What to do When You Feel Overwhelmed?

Overwhelmed? You know, that feeling of “emotional flooding” where your brain can’t wrap around all the things coming at you. I like to say that “overwhelmed” simply means “not broken down into small enough chunks for your brain to process.” And the consequence is typically paralysis: “shut down: system failure”. Or maybe a bit of a panic attack/freak out. Or a pity party, being a “task martyr”.

Even though we all experience a sense of overwhelm on occasion, it’s better to have a plan on the front end so that when (not if) it happens, we can calmly work our plan and not waste energy spinning our wheels or letting negative emotions grind our productivity to a halt.

Some ideas for your “dealing with overwhelm” plan:

  • Recognize overwhelm when it is happening. The quicker you can read your emotional gauge and see that it’s running “a little hot”, the quicker you formulate a workable response to pull out of it. A lack of self-awareness is “an accident waiting for an intersection.”
  • Vocalize it to self and someone else. There is something therapeutic about simply saying your emotional state aloud. “I am overwhelmed!” If you have a trusted friend, confidant at work, a great relationship with your supervisor, coach, or a success partner–that would be with whom to share your current state. If you are a person of faith, it’s time to pray. You can’t tame what you can’t name. And that starts the constructive path out of the ditch.
  • Change your state. This is a phrase I got from motivational speaker Tony Robbins. You must do something to break the pattern of your spiraling negative thoughts and the email that keeps shouting at you with another task.  Take a break. Go get a snack. Physically get your body in motion: take a walk. Do some deep  breathing exercises. Listen to encouragement/inspiration with your earphones while slouching in your chair.  Basically, it’s recharging your batteries with some me-time.
  • Now it’s time to never waste a crisis. Dig inside for what is going on behind your emotion. Ask yourself, “What is scaring me the most? What’s driving this emotional reaction? What do I need right now?” Separate what’s out of your control (to put out of your mind asap) from what’s within your control (to do the next steps of developing a plan and focusing on it).
  • Ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness, that you are incapable of handling the stressors of your job. No, it’s a strength to have both the humility to know when you are over your head, and the leadership proficiency of delegation. Talk to your team. Talk to your supervisor, if appropriate.  Tell them tasks that they can take off your plate to relieve your load right now. And discuss “What can be postponed/back-burnered?” until we get back to ground-zero.
  • Reprioritize. Determine a filter for examining your to-do list and triaging tasks. Who is most important to respond to first? What is most urgent, so that others can meet their deadlines, or so that you don’t lose a client? Which consequences will be the worst if you don’t give that task attention? Make or update your to-do list, and doing it with pen/paper helps you do a brain dump and sort your thoughts. You may even want to get organized/file/clean your desk for 20 minutes to clear away the clutter that restricts you from a clear focus on these priorities you are narrowing in on. (I have a priority ranking tool, if you are interested.)
  • Give yourself a pep talk. You are turning the corner from overwhelm to empowered. Reframe your situation positively to move forward. “I can do this!” “I’m gonna get as much of this done today as I can.”
  • Get ‘er done! Take one next step on each priority. Move the ball down the field. Initiate the email. Schedule the meeting. Write the first paragraph. Most people say that they feel most confident when they are crossing things off their list.

What do you do when overwhelmed? Any of these, or do you have some go-to strategies? Let me know at Also let me know if you want to be in my private Facebook group: “I am growing forward!” Would love to have you as a GFF (Growing Forward Friend) in the tribe!


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