How to Conquer the Anxiety of Overwhelm
What to do when you feel like you have so much to do you're going to get eaten alive.
My house is a mess.
As my eyes scan up the growing pile of laundry on the couch waiting to be folded, so rises my anxiety.
And here comes the voice in my head: “Where do I begin?”, “It’s too much!” or even a Macaulay Culkin-style, “AAAAHH!!!” before I turn tail and go hide back under my covers.
There’s a monster out there, but it’s not a laundry monster.
The Anxiety of Overwhelm
You can picture the scene: bills and papers litter your desk, dishes are piled in the sink, and there’s clutter, well… everywhere. You scan the room and start making a mental to-do list but it keeps adding up until you can’t take it anymore–it’s the anxiety of overwhelm.
Maybe it’s at home, maybe it’s at work (or more likely both). There’s just too much input–your brain spirals out of control and the anxiety turns into a beast that threatens to eat you alive.
There is a solution to this problem which may seem both obvious and counter-intuitive at the same time.
Stop running. Confront the anxiety. And perhaps the hardest part: accept it.
What Acceptance Looks Like
Acceptance can get a bad rap. It’s often equated with resignation or giving up, but this is a mistake. It’s one I made myself when dealing with my own anxiety, which comes along with my treatment-resistant depression.
I’ve struggled with crippling depression and anxiety on and off for years. I’ve tried just about every medication out there approved for depression, and a few that aren’t. I’ve tried therapists, lifestyle changes, and lasers fired at my brain with little success. The search for a cure to feel better became my singular quest in life.
Naturally, in the course of my pursuit, I was given the well-intended advice to “accept my problems”. And, naturally, I dismissed this advice as insane.
What? I thought, just live like this and be anxious all the time? Stop looking for answers and just give up?
I misunderstood what’s meant by acceptance. I didn’t understand that I could accept it and fight it. And paradoxically, acceptance might just be the secret weapon to finally slay that monster.
But first, I had to stop running from it.
Turning to Face the Beast
My reaction to rising anxiety used to be to run away, hide, distract myself, squelch it, anything to make that feeling stop. We’ve all heard the list of threat-response f-words: fight, flight, and freeze to name the top three. But none of these seemed to help.
Then someone taught me a new f-word for battling anxiety: FEEL.
My initial response to this suggestion was bewilderment. FEEL my anxiety? Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to avoid doing for years? Anxiety feels BAD, why would I do that? But I’d already tried everything else, I figured, so why not?
That piece of advice was a game changer.
It may not instantly solve the issue that caused the anxiety—my laundry pile is still growing out of control on the couch. But I’m in a better position to tackle it when I have the presence of mind to stop and tell myself, “I have anxiety right now” and just let it all in.
Looking anxiety in the face, I think, “oh, okay it’s just you. I know you.”
Usually, this simple act of labeling what’s happening releases the tension. I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding. My shoulders retreat from my ears. My belly unclenches. My pulse might still race a bit and I’m not sure it’ll go away completely, but naming it and facing it brings me back to reality.
Looking anxiety in the face, I think, “oh, okay, it’s just you. I know you.”
The more we run away, the bigger the monster in our mind gets. It’s like getting a shot or going to the dentist… the monster you create in your mind is almost always worse than the real thing.
But I don’t like it!
Just because we accept the presence of anxiety in our lives doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Check out the definition of the word from Merriam-Webster: “to receive (something offered) willingly.”
Consider a package delivered to your door. It has your name on it, so you “accept” it. Maybe you weren’t the one who ordered it. Maybe you don’t want it. Maybe you want to get rid of it–but it’s for you, so you accept it. In other words, you acknowledge the reality before you.
But it’s how we respond to that reality that matters. It helps to remember the Buddhist saying, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
I don’t like the constant clutter that pervades my house (the pain), but I accept it as a result of my condition. That acceptance has a way of defusing the powerful emotions I usually feel when I look at that mess.
That way, instead of crying about it and ignoring it (the suffering), I can usually get over it and accomplish something. But if not, I accept that, too.
The Paradox of Acceptance and Change
The ironic thing is that change for the future can only happen if you accept where you are in the present. You need to make an honest assessment of where you are and what you have before you can move forward.
This step involves another facet of acceptance that’s challenging for so many of us: self-compassion.
Sometimes we can’t move forward because we’re stuck lamenting where we are and how we got there. But this is when you need to give yourself a break. You might be unhappy with the road that got you here, but you can only move forward from where you are. Forgive yourself for the past, acknowledge the present, and look towards the future.
Be Honest About Your Limitations
Part of conquering the suffering brought on by anxiety or depression involves owning up to your limitations.
Sometimes on the good days, I get it in my head that I can actually do it all–this always ends in disaster. And because I set my expectations so high, the fall is that much more crushing.
When I look around at the rising pile of clutter covering every surface and cry because my house doesn’t look like the cover of a magazine, I’m being unrealistic.
When I forget that my depression comes with a side of debilitating fatigue, push myself too hard and crash, I’m just fooling myself.
If you’re not taking an honest assessment of where you stand, you can set yourself up to fail.
Choose Your Weapons Wisely
While we all have varying limitations, you’re not defenseless. You might just need to experiment to see which weapons you wield the best.
For example, when he’s so inclined, my husband can go on a three-hour, top to bottom cleaning bender. That’s just not a weapon I have in my arsenal, thanks to the fatigue brought on by my depression.
It would be like using a sword that’s too heavy for me to swing–once again, misplaced expectations.
But I CAN clean for half an hour, take a break, and do it again.
I CAN make tedious, boring tasks more fun by listening to podcasts while I clean or watching Netflix while I fold clothes.
I LIKE making lists, so I can break down bigger tasks into lists of smaller, doable chores.
It may take some self-exploration to find out your weapons of choice. The most important part of this step is to understand how you work best–not to try to live up to someone else’s standards.
Once I personally stopped trying to fold clothes like Marie Kondo, I was able to devise a system that worked for me.
So play to your strengths and get creative!
- Stop running! Face it and name it.
- Feel the anxiety, let it all in.
- Forgive yourself and move on–don’t get stuck on past behaviors.
- Know your limits and set realistic expectations.
- Choose your weapons wisely.
Writer, blogger, and mental health advocate with a background in science and teaching and a deep fascination with the human mind and human behavior. I endeavor to share research and insights and spread awareness of mental health issues to help others along the way.