The Best Way To Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed


For When You're Under Pressure

Today is Day 3 of the 31 Days To A Less Stressful Life Challenge and your task today is to learn how to deal with feeling overwhelmed by implementing a simple three-step procedure.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is horrible and most of us can recall a time when it happened. I’ve experienced this many times and the first thing to say about feeling overwhelmed is that I think it’s quite a common experience.

As a repeat offender, I’ve learned that there are some things I need to do whenever I’m starting to sense the temperature’s rising. I'm now able to start dealing with feeling overwhelmed before it escalates into a more serious situation.

A Simple, Three-Step Approach

I have a simple three-step approach which I use every time this happens.

  1. Take a Step Back
  2. Identify the Cause
  3. Re-Prioritise

Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.


Step 1: Take a Step Back

There’s no way to stop feeling overwhelmed without taking this first step. You need to get off the conveyor belt for a moment and take a breath.

Unfortunately, this can feel counter-intuitive.


When you’re overwhelmed the temptation is to keep hustling. You put your head down, grit your teeth and keep going. This is called tunnel thinking for a reason — once inside the tunnel it’s hard to see anything else.

I learned that's important to stop what you’re doing and literally take a step back, or even better step outside into the fresh air for a moment where you can see the sky.

Take a few deep breaths and allow your pulse rate and anxiety to subside. If you’re a meditator now’s a great time to remember to follow your breath. Mindfulness meditation it's a fantastic antidote to stress. I've got some handy tips on how to get started with mindfulness which I'll share in a later post in the series.

What you’re trying to achieve by stepping back is to get yourself outside of your thoughts, so you can gain some fresh perspective. When you’re able to look at your situation from the outside-in, you’re ready to move to Step 2.

Step 2: Identify The Cause

This step sounds obvious, but I’ve been guilty in the past of making assumptions about what’s causing my feelings of being overwhelmed.

You might think the answer’s perfectly obvious. It’s all that work piled on your desk, the missed calls, the project you’re working on, the schedule you’re failing to meet.

Sure, any one of these might be the real reason. But I suggest you need to dig a bit deeper.

Ask yourself if there’s anything else you're worrying about. I often find there’s something I hadn’t realised was affecting me in a background way.

A bill I wasn’t expecting, a guilty feeling about a relative I should be in touch with, anxiety about taking my scheduled leave…you get the idea.

Locating the cause of those feelings of being overwhelmed matters. It's like a doctor diagnosing an illness. Without the right diagnosis, the treatment is unlikely to work.

Be prepared to discover there might be multiple reasons for your current level of anxiety. Write down what you find. Pinning down a clear list of the reasons why you're feeling the way you are is a big help when it comes to the next step.

Step 3 is easier and more effective once you're narrowed down the cause.

Step 3: Re-Prioritise

Now you’re ready to make some decisions.


I usually write everything I need to do down on a long list. I find the act of writing things down on a piece of paper helps to decongest and calm my mind.

You have to get everything down. Don't leave anything out and make sure the list contains all the items on your to-do list from work and home.

Once they’re all there you’ve got to prioritise. The best advice is to decide which are your three most important ones and tackle them first.

What about the rest?

Some you can delete — they might not be as important or someone else might be better placed to deal with them. I'm coming back to delegation in a later post because effective delegation is an important tool in managing stress.


It's important to decide now whether there's anything on your list that falls into one of these categories:

  1. I don't know how to do the taskI lack the knowledge or skills necessary to complete the job.
  2. I'm never going to have time to do the taskIt's such a big project and I've got so many other things to do, I can't reasonably expect to get to it any time soon.
  3. I am uncomfortable with the level of riskThe task exposes me or others to a level of risk I'm not competent to assess fully.

These are all examples of tasks or projects which you need to immediately flag to your boss. Avoiding do so will lead to more worry and anxiety on your behalf — and possible disappointment or failure elsewhere which your boss won't thank you for.

Taking this step requires you to be assertive. You're being objective and reasonable in raising your concern. It usually helps if you've got a constructive suggestion to make about an alternative approach. I'll talk about some tactics for building increased assertiveness later in the series.

Summary — How To Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed.

Let's quickly recap.

  1. You've identified your top three priorities.
  2. You've flagged any issues you're worried about to your boss.
  3. You've deleted or dumped anything that's unnecessary.

You're now left with items you're going to defer.

Managing Deferred Items

The key to managing deferred items is to build a trusted system. 

Your deferred system will:

  • Keep a record of everything you defer.
  • Link it to any other tasks or projects that it relates to.
  • Set a reminder to flag it back up to you when you'll be ready to deal with it, or when a deadline's looming.

Building a system like this helps free up your mind from trying to keep tabs on everything you're deferring. If you don't create a system like this — you're very likely going to re-create that feel of being overwhelmed on a regular basis.

If you haven’t already got a trusted system, I’ll have a post later in this series describing how to do it. The basics are simple.

  • Choose a tool like OmniFocus, Things or Remember The Milk.
  • Give every task a name.
  • Record the first action you can take.
  • Give this action a date when it’s due.
  • Set a reminder.
  • Take action.
  • Repeat.

You may also find it useful to look at what other people have done to build trusted systems that work for them. I've got some recommended resources on the 31 Days To A Less Stressful Life Homepage.

Today's Challenge

Today's challenge is to take the 3-step approach and be ready to use it the next time you're feeling overwhelmed. It is a simple but effective remedy.

The infographic below is a handy reminder.


Tell Us What Works For You

If you’ve tried out the 3 Steps, come back to the blog and let us know what you learned. 

How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed?

If you've got some suggestions to make that might help someone else, leave a comment.