Overcoming Overwhelm


In 2020, those of us who were not considered key or essential workers likely experienced for the first time what it’s like to stay home and do nothing as the world stood still. Now that society has fully resumed, some of us are missing that quieter life, free of endless to-do lists, FOMO, and social obligations.

As we venture back into society, it is becoming clear that before COVID, many of us were trying to squeeze far too much into one day. We’d frequently put everyone else’s needs before our own and may have even considered being ‘busy’ a badge of honor. That old, familiar sense of overwhelm is beginning to creep back in for many the more we go back to the old way of doing things and take on more and more responsibilities.

You may be familiar with the self-help adage borrowed from flight safety briefings ‘you need to put your oxygen mask on first.’ You’re instructed to do this on a flight because if you were in a rapid decompression at 35,000 feet, you’d have less than a minute before your cognitive function and motor skills degrade due to the lack of oxygen supply to the brain[1]. If you try to help others before yourself in a rapid decompression, you will find that very quickly you won’t be able to help anyone else.

Overwhelm is a warning to put your oxygen mask on and avoid the ‘rapid decompression’ of burnout and exhaustion. If you burn out, you won’t have anything left to give to your family and friends. So if you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to take stock of your boundaries, your commitments, and perhaps your overall health.


We’ve developed a 3 step holistic approach at Tribe to help our members look at what may not be working for them in their business or personal life and implement manageable changes:

Audit: How is overwhelm affecting you? What ‘symptoms’ are you experiencing? 

  • What tools are you currently using to stay organized? What’s working, and what isn’t? 
  • Do some tasks or situations trigger overwhelm more than others?
  • Does the mere thought of making a list of everything you need to do trigger overwhelm?
  • Do you procrastinate? What do you avoid doing?
  • Did you learn anything about your need for ‘busyness’ from the collective traumatic experience[2] we call COVID? By doing less, were you able to be more present? Did you have more time to do hobbies, self-care, or enjoy crafts? Did you engage more with family members? Or perhaps COVID only increased your responsibilities and sense of overwhelm. 
  • Have you taken an honest look at everything you are committed to doing? 
  • Do you have good boundaries?
  • Is it realistic for one person to complete all the projects, attend all the events, and take care of all the people you are trying to? Seriously. Are you trying to do more than your nervous system can handle?

Awareness: What is the underlying cause, the hidden truth behind it? Where might you be unknowingly perpetuating overwhelm? 

  • What is your overwhelm costing you or preventing you from doing? 
  • Who and what is important to you? How much time are you spending on the things that are important to you?
  • What expectations, obligations, and items on your to-do list can you let go of or delegate to someone else?
  • Do you compare yourself to others?
  • Is perfectionism holding you back?
  • Are you creating stress for yourself by trying to be something or someone you are not?
  • Do you feel you need to behave a certain way in this world? Like you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? 
  • Do you experience fatigue or brain fog? 
  • Do you feel as if you might have ADD?

Action: With new awareness based on your answers above, what small, consistent steps and habits can you introduce to reduce your sense of overwhelm? Below are some general suggestions that you may find helpful:

  • Pause when you feel overwhelm rising, breathe, and examine the thought or emotion that triggered it. Is there anything you can do to resolve that thought or emotion?
  • If you can’t calm yourself down with your breath, research tools to find something that resonates with you to calm your nervous system, for example, Elm Bach Flower Essence[3], CBD[4], Magnesium[5], Havening[6], and EFT/Tapping[7]
  • If you are feeling stuck or frozen in inaction, is there a task you enjoy that you can start with to get you going? (Be careful not to use this to avoid things you need to do, though).
  • Konmari[8] your mind: Do a brain dump of everything that is currently on your mind. You can even write each task on a sticky to help you organize and, hopefully, delegate or let go of some. 
  • David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done[9], states that clarifying the first or next action that needs to be taken on a project or task on your to do list reduces the static around it. For example, ‘call insurance agent for quote’ seems simple but can’t be completed without the phone number. If that number is on a notepad that you keep leaving on your desk at work, it will delay completing that task and add to your mental static and frustration with yourself. So identifying ‘bring home notepad’ as the first action, and adding a reminder set for when you are next at your desk reduces time and energy spent revisiting tasks you don’t have the resources to complete. 
  • Be kind to ‘future me‘: Make yourself notes, reminders, and to-do lists with instructions and information that makes life easier for ‘future me.’ When you feel tempted to avoid a task, consider if you would leave unfinished tasks around for someone you love to deal with because you can’t face doing it in the moment? Why is it OK to do that to yourself? 
  • Have you ever noticed how quickly you can clean up your house if someone says, ‘I’ll be there in 30 minutes!’? Use the Pomodoro[10] technique once a day to fast-track any smaller tasks you are procrastinating or chunks of a big project that feels overwhelming. Set a timer for 25 minutes and turn off all distractions. 
  • Add daily Tiny Habits[11] to anchor simple habits that can keep your overwhelm in check.
  • Practice saying ‘No’ and putting your emotional well-being at the top of your list. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you have to. 
  • If you are feeling fatigued, foggy-brained, or have very scattered thinking, consult a nutritionist for guidance on reducing inflammation and boosting your energy. 
  • If you need more support in overcoming your overwhelm, check out the panel discussion below and reach out to one of our practitioners for guidance. 

Hear Tribe professional members Tom Herman, Stephanie Poulos and Nancy Frank Thomas share their own experiences with overwhelm and strategies for keeping it in check with Tribe co-owner Ellen Letten.

Written by Ellen Letten, Brain Health Educator and Co-owner of Tribe. Ellen supports clients who are facing brain health challenges to implement simple and sustainable lifestyle changes to improve their brain health.

References & Resources:

  1. https://www.boldmethod.com/blog/lists/2018/05/6-things-that-happen-inside-an-airplane-during-a-rapid-decompression/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifting-the-veil-trauma/202005/what-is-collective-trauma
  3. https://www.bachcentre.com/en/remedies/the-38-remedies/elm/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604171/
  5. https://drhyman.com/blog/2010/05/20/magnesium-the-most-powerful-relaxation-mineral-available/
  6. https://havening.org/about-havening/overview
  7. https://www.thetappingsolution.com
  8. https://www.thespruce.com/the-konmari-method-4138610
  9. https://www.productiveflourishing.com/next-action/
  10. https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique
  11. https://tinyhabits.com

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