5 Steps to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

The summer I was 18 years old, me and my friend Claire got a job at the local soap factory. The factory hired students every summer to help them prepare their Christmas orders.  Our job was to stand at the end of a conveyor belt and put trays containing an assortment of soaps into gift boxes, one tray per box.

As part of the interview process we had been given a dexterity test to check that we could move our hands quickly. However, that first day, while our head and hands were getting use to this new task, our hands didn’t seem to be moving fast enough.

I remember feeling really overwhelmed every time I looked  down the conveyor belt.  As far as the eye could see there were  gray trays filled with pretty soaps heading towards us. We had to keep moving fast otherwise there would be a log jam.

I  learned it was better if I stopped looking to see how many were coming (it was always the same anyway) and just focus on putting the trays that were in front of me into their gift boxes.

One dictionary describes overwhelm as ‘being buried under a mass,’ and another describes it as feeling stressed because you have so much on your mind.  For adults with ADHD, overwhelm usually feels like a combination of these 2 definitions.

Feeling overwhelmed is a common emotion in the lives of adults with ADHD because many of the aspects of ADHD contribute to that feeling. Here are 7 examples:

1. Difficulties prioritizing

2. Procrastination

3. Perfectionism tendencies

4. People pleasing and saying yes to lots of requests

5. Living in a physically disorganized space

6. Problems with project planning

7. The time passes differently for you

Now, as you are reading that list, try not to feel despondent as there are ADHD friendly ways to conquer each item on the list. Plus, developing habits and learning time management skills are other great ways to reduce the number of times you feel overwhelmed.

In the meantime, here is a 5 step action plan to get out of overwhelm quickly. You can use it any time you get that uneasy sense of overwhelm.

1) Get a big piece of paper

2) List all the things that are causing you to you feel overwhelmed right now.

This isn’t a to-do list. It is more of a brain dump of everything that is bothering you at the moment. Write down what is weighing on your mind and topics that cause you to get a pit in your stomach.

For example:

  • The car is making a strange noise.
  • I am going on a trip in 2 weeks and have done nothing to prepare
  • The house is a mess
  • Haven’t heard from Terry in 4 weeks
  • No idea how to do the work project
  • The cat needs her annual check-up, and it’s 3 months late
  • There is a snow storm in the forecast
  • It’s Grandma’s birthday in 2 days.

It is better to have a long list than a short list and have concerns still floating around in your mind.

3) Get Practical

Next, look at each item on your list and think of actions you could take to help the situation. Sometimes it might just be one thing, for example, phoning the garage and booking an appointment for the car.

Other times one item could have many action steps, for example a trip

  • book a flight,
  • find a cat sitter
  • decide what to pack etc.

Some items it might be complex, as in the case of  the work project, but by taking one action,  such as speaking to your boss, you  will have a clearer vision about the way forward and the overwhelm will melt away.

There  won’t be a practical answer for every item, for example you can’t do anything about the weather. However, when you start taking action on items that are in your control, the ‘out of your control items’ don’t feel so big.

4) Time it!

When you are feeling overwhelmed, tasks can grow to enormous proportions in your mind. A helpful way to combat this is to write down how long a task will take in minutes and hours.  If you aren’t sure, it is fine to guesstimate (calculate or give your best guess). For example:

Call garage and reschedule an appointment: 10 minutes

Knowing that each item has a beginning, middle and end, rather than taking ‘forever’ is  a helpful psychological boost and makes tasks seem more manageable.

5) Action stations!

Now, it’s time to take action. It doesn’t matter what you pick first. It could be the shortest task, the easiest or the one you are dreading the most.  As soon as you have completed one item, you will feel great (thanks to dopamine), and will want to move to the next item. With each action the overwhelm melts away and you feel back in control.

As you are taking action, remember the lesson I learned from my summer at the soap factory. Focus on what is directly in front of you, rather than looking at all the future tasks heading your way.

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  1. Ian A Sykes says:

    What do you do when you can’t figure out how long a task will take b/c you don’t know how well you will be able to stay on task while doing the task?

  2. Tracy says:

    I am completely overwhelmed with my life right now. More so than ever before. I’m waking up at 3 am, far too many days including today, feeling panicked. I hope trying this method works but I’m concerned it’s just one more piece of paper to join the piles on my desk. Feeling discouraged beyond hope.

    • Kimberly says:

      I am in the same situation sweet, we’ll get through it..I’m surely not a professional but if you’d like to email me perhaps we could share struggles, set attainable goals and if nothing else…Realize we’re not alone💪❤️note2kim@gmail.com

  3. Laura says:

    This is genius! I just thought, “oh well, lets try this strategy”, and now that background level anxiety that I’m so used to has massively reduced! I think you’re right about the time estimation thing–I think in my head I imagine all these little tasks will take forever, and then my brain just melts down! But now I’m just going through my list, head down, thinking “oh yeah, 5 minutes, I’ll just knock that one off”. Brilliant stuff. You’ve got such a great way of making things work for our ADHD brains. You’re a treasure, Jacqui – thanks so much! Just thinking now, actually, I might even do one of these at the start of each day… it would be so nice to have that background anxiety following me everywhere.
    Many thanks!!!

    • Hi Laura! super happy to hear that this has helped you. What a great idea to try doing this at the start of the day. It could be an excellent way to zoom into what actually needs to be done, rather than things that would be nice to do.
      let me know how it goes!

  4. Melissa B says:

    It was actually the intense feeling of “overhelm” that started me on my ADHD journey. Although I have not been officially diagnosed yet, 90% of the symptoms fit. I was feeling like I was drowning in a sea of obligations and tasks that I could never seem to get on top of. I felt like I couldn’t “adult” right and simple tasks such as getting my dishes done and laundry folded and put away would leave me in tears, and as I single parent I knew I had to do these things myself and couldn’t pass them off which made the “overhelm” worse. I knew I was not depressed and any health tests for thyroid conditions (that could resemble some ADHD symptoms) always came up negative. I have always been addicted to making list and schedules (that I would never complete or I would get bored with) but I did find that making a list like you suggested very helpful although your version would have been better than the crazy one I did. Thanks for your practical and simple tips!

    • You make a great point about lists! Some people with ADHD write very long and comprehensive ones to the point they stop being useful. Try this way next time you write a list and let us know how you get on. warmly

    • Allie says:

      Amen. I know exactly what you mean about the lists and schedules. And finding “adult”ing difficult!!! I am in the process of getting a diagnosis. I definitely will be trying this tactic. Definitely starting meditating. and absolutely praying for therapy and medication!!

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