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How to Stop Overwhelm From Eating You Alive

We had 3 minutes until we needed to leave for school.

“Can we tape my lacrosse stick, mom?”
“And what about my library books?”
“Have you seen my outdoor shoes?”
“Where are the umbrellas?”

Two little voices, talking over each other in increasing volume, oblivious to the effect of their questions on my blood pressure as I try (and fail) to coax the dog back in the house while also searching the countertop for a critical permission slip.

I’m sure my pre-kid self would have given up trying to process so many competing requests at once.  But mom-life is a whole different beast.  This is our normal.  This is our every day.

This is our life.

And if we don’t figure out how to manage it, it’ll eat us alive.

woman and child in the mountains

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We joke about it so often that it’s losing its meaning.  The constant juggle of doing all the things for all the people takes a toll. It can lead even the most Mary Poppins of us to dream of floating our umbrellas somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  Just to catch a hot second of peace.

Strategies to Stop Overwhelm Within Your Control

It’s tempting to think that a new planner, iPhone app, or getting up at the butt-crack of dawn is the answer to getting it all done.  This kind of thinking, while wildly successful at selling us stationary and office supplies, dooms us to failure because it overlooks one key truth:

Overwhelm due to “busyness” isn’t a time-management issue — it’s a self-management issue.

graphic highlighting strategies to stop overwhelm

Trying to cram 50,000 things into a day that can only realistically hold five will. never. work.  

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your regular-ass self is NOT magic.  You are human.  You have limits.  And no time-management system on earth can schedule six hockey practices, a ballet recital, and a dog grooming appointment in the same evening without making you feel like you just went through a meat grinder.

If you want to create some space in your life, you need to create space in your life.  

Here are a few options:

1. Delete the Unnecessary

Get rid of the clutter that’s junking up your life.  

  • Tired of sorting through a mountain of shoes every morning?
    >> Get rid of any that are too small, worn-out, or not in season so it’s easier to find what you need
  • Hate volunteering at your kids’ school (yes, I said it)? 
    >> Step away from the PTA.
  • Not enjoying Zumba like you thought you would?
    >> Peace out.

Signing up for something isn’t a life sentence.  You are not a quitter because you gave up on macrame.  It means you’re smart enough to know that suffering your way through something you hate is a complete waste of your life.

word art: your choices are not a life sentence

2. Say No

You know you want to, so do it already.

Birthday party invite for a kid you’ve never heard of?
Asked to help out at the baseball fundraiser on your only free weekend this month?

No.  Just, no.

Yes, it’s scary.  Especially for all the people pleasers out there.  But saying “yes” out of obligation or pity isn’t being nice either.   

“Maybe” is an equally seductive trap.  There is an immense amount of mental energy tied up in “maybe.”  Most of it thinking of how you’re going to say “no” the next time they ask.

Do yourself a favour. 
Do everyone else a favour. 

Just say no.

word art: don't say maybe if you want to say no

3. Delegate

How much of your overwhelm stems from cleaning up or taking care of other people’s crap?

I’m betting a lot of it.

And if you have kids over the age of 18 months, they are more than capable of cleaning up after themselves.

word art: your kids are capable of cleaning up their own crap

I’m not suggesting you go full-blown drill-sergeant, but teaching your kids to take care of their own belongings and contribute to the smooth running of the household is a major skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few examples of what kids are generally capable of based on their age.  Some kids may need more time and others might be ready for more responsibility earlier on.  The key is to gauge their current level of readiness, teach age-appropriate skills, and provide opportunities for them to practice.

word art: chart highlighting chore expectations based on your child's age

Coping with Overwhelm Out of Your Control

Overwhelm is not always a function of how well we manage our time or say no to unnecessary obligations.  Some of the most serious overwhelm comes from things we have no control over, like losing a loved one, getting fired, having car trouble, or caring for a sick child.

While implementing the strategies discussed earlier may help ease your burden, introducing coping strategies and seeking support will be invaluable in helping you through your toughest times.

1. Focus on your breath

While it sounds simple, pausing to take a few slow, conscious breaths has instant stress-reducing effects. 

This isn’t just hocus-pocus, as focused breathing acts on our central nervous system to calm the limbic system — the emotional centre of our brain responsible for our unconscious fight-or-flight responses. 

Focused breathing quiets our impulses and emotional reactivity by bringing our pre-frontal cortex back on-line, allowing us to think rationally and make conscious decisions.

word art: chart teaching box breathing

2. Stay Grounded

When your thoughts are swirling it’s easy to feel like you’re swirling aimlessly too.  To help get grounded during periods of overwhelm, try focusing on your immediate environment through your senses.

word art: grounding technique

Thinking about what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste instantly gets you out of your head and back into the here-and-now.

3. Reach Out

Usually, when we feel like turtling into a ball it’s a good sign that we’re in need of some extra support.  Even though reaching out for support can feel like one more thing to add to our never-ending to-do list, doing so is our best chance of feeling heard and getting the help we need. 

If you don’t have friends or family you feel comfortable talking to, you can always talk to your family doctor, nurse practitioner, or mental health professional.

Crisis text lines are another great option.  In Canada, you can text “TALK” to 686868 to receive free, 24/7 confidential support.  If you’re in the US, text “HOME” to 741741, and if you’re in the UK text “SHOUT” to 85258.

• • •

Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t have to be your standard way of living.  I hope you find these strategies helpful, and if you have any others you’d like to add to the list, leave them in the comments below.  The more we can support one another and work these strategies into our daily lives, the better off we’ll all be.


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