How to Manage Overwhelm

 For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a serious objection to January.

In my ideal world, Januarys just wouldn’t exist. December would be immediately followed by February (which I’m not a huge fan of either, but it’s better than January), or even March.

The only January I ever encountered that didn’t fill my soul with darkness and gloom, in a manner that seems never-ending, was when I lived in Barcelona (it was 14°C and sunny every day).

I haven’t written a blog post since December.

I haven’t, in fact, written anything since December. And when I don’t write, something in me starts to die.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it begins to wither, the juice dries up, and one day I realize I feel shriveled and brittle, and that any creativity I may ever have known has deserted me.

It’s frustrating (and humbling), that as someone who’s spent over a decade exploring mindfulness practices, and trying to learn how to find a slightly less tumultuously emotional way of experiencing life, I can still get into a state of such severe overwhelm that I worry myself.

And yet, that’s what it came to.

Last Monday, at work, feeling far too close to the way I was feeling before my meltdown in Switzerland four (!) years ago, I remembered that I still had some of the anti-anxiety pills I’d been given back then (they’re probably past their shelf life but that didn’t cross my mind in that moment).

It’s also awkward because I’m currently creating a mindfulness course – and yet I myself, in extreme cases (and this has been an extreme case), can still have trouble committing to the practices that help keep me sane.

Hello integrity check number 278 (or thereabouts; I’ve lost count the last few months).

And despite the frazzled state I have whirled myself into once again, I am proud of myself for coping as well as I have. Of giving myself spaces to breathe and nurture myself, of letting go of things, of appointments, of ‘doing’ in order to re-connect to myself in those precious pockets of be-ing.

For dragging my butt out for a 7k run every week. For letting go of a million ‘shoulds’. For doing what needed to be done despite how I was feeling. For taking the decision to stop any and all arguing with reality.

Overwhelm may still be able to sink its teeth into me occasionally, but nowadays I know how to fight back.


All this overwhelm (moving house, emptying & letting go of my childhood home, a plethora of issues with the new house, an intensive coaching course, and a full-time job and too many side projects) has provided an excellent setting to practice self-love.

Limiting commitments. Letting go of previously made commitments. Getting enough sleep. Being endlessly gentle with my weepiness and need for extremely cheesy pizza. Many (many) long hot baths with candles, bubbles and giant glasses of red wine (yes, multiple glasses were often necessary). Re-committing to sitting (meditating) every day.

Using aromatherapy. Colouring mandalas. Buying myself flowers. Reading “Eat, Pray, Love” (for about the 100th time). Lighting candles. Sage-smudging. A delectable new skin-nourishing oil. Deep belly breaths. Flower essences. Kind words. Tea. Kitten snuggles.

And slowly, the stillness is returning.

It’s also been a great opportunity to practice asking for what I need, and for allowing other people to see me when I’m feeling like my skin is paper-thin, when I don’t give a rat’s ass what my hair looks like, or that I haven’t worn make-up in weeks, or the possibility that I might never get rid of the ‘winter weight’ (especially if I keep munching on those immeasurably comforting, overly cheesy pizzas – I’m fairly certain at this point that cheese must be good for the soul).

Managing Overwhelm

So that said, here is my list of everything I’ve found to deal with overwhelm:

  • Know your habitual mental/emotional/physical patterns of behavior when overwhelm begins to creep in (the sooner you spot it, the better)
  • Notice when you’re starting to stretch past what feels comfortable and slip into those habitual patterns
  • Take immediate steps to reduce/let go of activities that feel draining at this point in time
  • Check your priorities, and if necessary (re-)align them with self-care; are there things that can be let go of, backed out of, said ‘No’ to?
  • Write out a giant Self-Love List of every single thing you can think of that nourishes you/makes you feel safe/makes you smile/makes you relax
  • Insert at least one of the things from your Self-Love List into your program each day
  • Watch for where you’re numbing rather than nourishing yourself
  • If the issue(s) causing the overwhelm are likely to be part of your life for a while, brainstorm with a partner/friend about longer-term systems to put into place in order to support you
  • Especially if you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety, make sure you share where you’re at with one or more close friends/family members. If you’re in a partnership, make sure you also seek additional sources of support
  • Take a few minutes to visualize how you want to feel. Breathe it into your cells and anchor it in your body. This is the feeling you are aiming for; make yourself a cute note to stick in your workplace or somewhere you’ll see it at regular intervals that will remind you to plug in to this feeling at regular intervals throughout the day
  • Take ten minutes every day (it can be 5, but every day, non-negotiable) to sit somewhere quiet and just be with whatever is there 
  • Journaling can be helpful if you feel like getting your insides on paper is calming
  • Be incredibly gentle with yourself; try to speak to yourself as you would your best friend, or if you’re really strung out, as you would a small child. You’re overstretched right now – give yourself as much leniency and kindness as you can (and if you can’t, ask a friend to provide you with these words)
  • Physical activities really help to release stress (the product of overwhelm) from the body – a daily activity outside (Oxygen! Nature!) is great; yoga or other indoor activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system are also wonderfully supportive
  • Get enough sleep, Get enough sleep, Get enough sleep
  • Eat as much fresh, colourful, leafy goodness as possible (in addition to ludicrously cheesy pizza, if that also happens to be your comfort food of choice) – this will support your nervous system and help to balance your endocrine system (which is probably spinning out on crazy cortisol levels)
  • Breathe deep. Expand. Stretch 
  • Take Magnesium and B vitamin supplements to help your body combat stress (or just eat tons of the above-mentioned leafy goodness)
  • Have this ACIM (A Course in Miracles) lesson as your mantra: “I could see peace instead of this”
  • Aromatherapy can help your mood; lavender, rose, ylang ylang and patchouli are my favourites
  • Read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart.” You will feel better

As a general rule of thumb: do anything and everything that you know is good for you. Try out different things. The struggle against overwhelm is a battle that must be fought on all fronts; body, mind and soul.

That being said, in a state of overwhelm, less is more.

Rather than desperately adding things to your schedule in an aggressive assault, be mindful that it’s going to serve you more to release things. To do less. To have more time to simply be.

So let the words ‘Nourish’ and ‘Peace’ be your guides, align your behaviour with self-love, and practice breathing and expanding into each moment.

And remember; nothing lasts forever. This will pass. And you’ll emerge tougher and wiser than before.

Hang in there.

You’ve got this.



8 thoughts on “How to Manage Overwhelm

  1. Love this! Glad to see you come back to writing. I don’t usually struggle in the winter but this year has been a whole nother story. This was such a helpful article to read. xoxo


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