3 Powerful Practices to Free Yourself From Overwhelm

3 Powerful Practices to Free Yourself From Overwhelm


While the chaotic feeling of overwhelm has been normalized—it isn’t “normal.” Here are three ways to overcome the frenzy of your busy schedule and the constant feeling of overwhelm.

I had just finished a dizzying round of work deadlines, responsibilities for my kids’ school, and a nauseating bout of the flu.

My systems were firing on all cylinders, and though I’m usually capable of handling the juggle, it seemed, lately, I had actually gone out and joined the circus.

It is far too easy in the current pace of our world to succumb to overwhelm. We have become increasingly accustomed to the feeling of overwhelm, and we tend to walk right on the edge of the line between “I’ve got this,” and “I can’t take another minute.”

When I saw The Power of Agency by Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, I had just finished an unusually chaotic morning and was looking at a full afternoon. I decided to look through the chapters and see what I could glean from a title that promised to help me “conquer obstacles, make effective decisions, and create a life on your own terms.”

While I normally feel mostly in command of my life, lately, things have gone a bit off the rails. It could be that having two teenagers with active lives of their own adds a certain level of unpredictability to the whole situation.

Napper, an executive coach, and Rao, a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, have spent dozens of years working with clients who experience significant levels of overwhelm—think leaders of large corporations and executive directors of major nonprofits. I was hoping to gather a few new tools to help me through this (hopefully) temporary moment of feeling like my life had gotten away from me.

We live in a world where anxiety has become an increasingly common emotion, with 1 in 5 Americans diagnosed with anxiety disorder (according to the World Health Organization.) If you’ve ever felt even a mild amount of panic, you can imagine how many of us are experiencing an unhealthy level of anxiety, worry, and fear, even without any clinical diagnoses.

According to Napper and Rao, there are seven principles that will help you regain a sense your life is under control. The three Behavioral Principles are described as “the easiest to learn and develop.” The next four are Cognitive Principles and require an intense level of engagement, requiring a deep-dive into how we work with our thoughts and emotions. I decided to start with the principles of behavior, bringing them into my daily awareness and practice.

Three Behavioral Principles for Processing Overwhelm:

Control stimuli. We allow our attention to be hijacked far too often. Sometimes, we choose it by going onto social media, and, sometimes, we let in by leaving our ringers on and checking emails at all hours of the day and night. Napper and Rao present various methods for keeping a rein on what we allow into our awareness. They suggest creating a quiet space, setting our focus, turning off anything that could distract us, and being completely focused on one task at a time. One useful state that most of us are no longer comfortable with is boredom. They contend that “time devoid of stimuli is a precursor to more intentional, deeper, and more creative thought.” Spending more time in this level of awareness would be useful for all of us.

Associate selectively. Increasingly, studies show with whom we spend our time has a huge effect on many aspects of our health and wellbeing. Napper and Rao stress the importance of noticing how you feel around the people with whom you spend your time: setting clear boundaries and consciously creating a positive community that is aligned with your values. By becoming aware of those who are hostile or excessively negative, and letting go of unhealthy relationships, we can make space for deeper relationships that bring growth for all involved.

Move. I remember as a teenager that when my life felt particularly out of control, movement gave me an outlet that brought me back to a feeling of normalcy. Running laps after soccer practice in the misty rain gave me the perspective for which I was looking. Rao and Napper insist that learning to listen to your body and having a cycle of movement and rest—including being sure to move at least every 30 minutes if your work keeps you sedentary, and spending time in nature—are crucial for keeping our minds at an optimal level of functioning. They note the importance of feeding our bodies wholesome meals, taking breaks, and sleeping enough. While these aspects of our wellbeing seem obvious, it’s surprising how quickly they fall to side when we are caught up in the demands of everyday life.

These are the basics of self-care, and they are not a luxury, but rather a requirement to keep us at our best. We constantly have choices to make in our lives, even when we feel caught up in the currents that swirl around us. We must be aware enough in the moment to recognize that we get to choose.

As Napper and Rao remind: “The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on. Exercise the discipline to stop. Pay attention to that signal. If the path you are on doesn’t seem right, pause, reflect, and get off. Put yourself on a better path.”

Read about how to hang in there when you're feeling overwhelmed.

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