Looming deadlines, family issues, frustrating commutes: Stress is a part of everyday life, and resultant moments of panic are normal, natural reactions to life’s curveballs. But when those moments build and build, they can topple over – and cause feelings of extreme overwhelm.
Having a few strategies up your sleeve can help you calm down the next time you feel slammed with anxiety, and help you tackle whatever you’re facing in the moment.
1. Do a deep-breathing exercise
Knowing an effective breathing exercise or two can help bring you out of your feelings of overwhelm – and back into the moment.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of breath work. It’s the body’s signal that you are safe,” says Ruschelle Khanna, Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
2. Try some low-impact exercise
Moments of extreme overwhelm aren’t always the best times to bust out heart-pumping cardio moves. Instead, focus instead on soothing, low-impact activities.
If you’re able to, take a step away from whatever is overwhelming you – whether it’s work, a text message, a conversation with your partner, or another trigger – and try one of these low-impact, highly-restorative activities:
- Soothing stretches: The most relaxing yoga poses include “legs up the wall,” “cat-cow,” and “restorative child’s.” You can find illustrated instructions for each here.
- Gardening: The simple act of tending to plants – e.g., repotting, watering, pruning – can be uplifting, whether it’s a full-fledged rose garden or windowsill potted herb.
- Walking: Try a mindful walking exercise to shed overwhelm by heightening inner awareness.
The key is to get your body moving in a gentle, intuitive flow. Granting yourself this time and space to calm down can help you see an overwhelming situation more objectively.
3. Engage in a mentally soothing activity
Not able to physically get away? Treat your brain like a muscle! Try giving your mind some low-impact exercise with one of these calming mental activities:
Meditate: A gratitude meditation might prove particularly useful, as it can help replace feelings of frustration with intentional positivity for what’s good in your life.
Listen to soothing music:
Stream Marconi Union’s Weightless, which was designed to soothe the nervous system. It’s been dubbed the “most relaxing song on Earth” after participants in a study experienced a 65 percent reduction in their overall anxiety,
Write down all your worries: Getting them out of your brain and onto paper can be soothing in itself! Try these quick prompts:
What are 5 things I can do in this moment to help myself find balance and self-nourishment?
Right now, I actively choose to let go of the things I cannot control, including: _____
I have overcome struggles such as ____, so I know I have the strength to handle whatever comes my way.
4. Give anxiety a compassionate pushback
In the midst of overwhelm, it can be hard to separate objective concerns from the flood of anxiety. One way to instantly soothe an inundation of negativity is to employ a reframing skill from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
“One tip I always share with clients about reframing is that we don’t need to look for the best thought, just a better feeling one,” says Khanna, who utilizes CBT in her practice.
So, for example, if you find yourself thinking “I will never achieve my goals,” the first thing you can do is check in the with the emotional response you get from that statement.
“It’s probably going to be something like defeated. So with reframing I might try to find a thought that will encourage me to feel the emotion capable.”
Try reframing those feelings of defeat and frustration with an optimistic, kinder-to-yourself statement, like “I have achieved things in the past and am working on achieving this very hard thing right now.’”
5. Identify triggers and responses
The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, pause and ask yourself: What situation created these feelings?
Khanna says, “In Cognitive Therapy, we view panic and overwhelm as something that came to be after a series of events and reactions. We want to know what those things are, and prevent them from happening in the future.”
Maybe it’s a friend whose actions or attitude tend to overwhelm you. Or perhaps it’s an errand, or an ongoing assignment, that you particularly dread doing.
By identifying these triggers and responses, you can both see them more clearly and prepare for future occurrences. Doing so will help you lift their power over you.
6. Reassess your schedule!
To prevent future feelings of overwhelm, it’s often helpful to consider your current workload and list of responsibilities.
Khanna explains, “Many times people come to therapy due to being legitimately overworked. It might be helpful to speak with someone about the tendency to keep too many things on your plate, then developing a plan to reduce some of those things.”
“Overwhelm can absolutely be prevented,” says Khanna. “It’s all about backtracking to how we got here in the first place.”