Five Ways to Chill When You're Feeling Overwhelmed

Photo by Alex E. Proimos (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic ).

Sometimes life likes to throw everything at you at once. Sometimes you like to add to the pile by throwing things at yourself. Work, family, life, the universe, and everything adds up into a big knotted ball of overwhelmed — which is pretty much where I’m at right now. Not all of it is bad, in fact a lot of it is many kinds of awesome, but it’s still mentally, emotionally, and physically tiring.

Looking forward into the next year, I know it’s probably not going to lighten up anytime soon — my day job will remain hectic, my creative work will still need to get done, community in the form of family, friends, and social activities will still call for my presence. Life will likely remain packed over the foreseeable future, so I need to have strategies to maintain my physical and mental health.

As with my usual doling of advice, these items are representative of things that I am doing or am going to try to do in order to help myself. Results may vary.

1. Declutter

This goes two ways — get the junk that’s filling up my personal space out and turning off the screens.

The shelves in my bedroom tend to collect clutter as I get lazy and just let things lie where I drop them when I come into my room at the end of the day. Similar piles are collecting in my dining room and kitchen. Every time I walk past them, they bother me. I can feel their visual noise, even when I’m not looking directly at them. When I find ways to declutter my living spaces at home and at work, I immediately feel more relaxed when I’m in those space.

Stress often has me turning to the TV or to games as a form of escape. I can turn to movies or TV shows I’ve seen a million times as a form of comfort or switch on a game for a bit of mental distraction for a while. That’s totally fine and can be helpful — to a degree. But at a certain point, the game or TV binging becomes addictive. Less a way of relaxing and more a form of avoidance. The screens just become an addition of visual and audio noise. I find myself failing to meet goals (thus adding to my stress) or obsessing over social media or games (as with my recent experience with the game Fallout Shelter). Turning off the screens — TV, smart phone, tablet, computer —  (or at least putting them down for a while) is a way of getting rid of the visual and audio noise, invoking more of the kind of quiet that can help bring on the calm.

2. Get Outside and Move

I’ve fallen out of my habit of regular running. Not only does my muscles and body ache more, but I find myself still be drawn to getting outside in some way, whether it’s taking a walk or going on a hike. Getting outside for some fresh air is known to decrease stress and improve concentration, as well as providing other benefits. I know I need the fresh air to help me feel better all around and getting outside for a walk, run, or anything is an excellent way to disengage from many of the the things that are overwhelming me.

Bonus level — pay attention to where your head is at when your out walking, riding, or whatever. Often when I first start my walk, I’m still in my head, thinking about the words I need to write, the projects I need to do, the things I should have said to someone, and so on; I’m not seeing the world around me, the trees or people or birds or (dangerously) the cars. So, if I can, I try to practice pay attention while I’m outside, of using my senses and being present. It makes the experience so much better and so much more relaxing.

3. Meditate for Better Sleep

A while back, I tried to meditate for just 10 minutes a night before I went to bed. I only lasted three days on the challenge, but on each of those following three mornings I woke up feeling more refreshed after having slept better. The short mediation helped me shut off all the jumbled thoughts that normally keep my mind spinning for half an hour to an hour while I’m trying to sleep. It helped and I know it’s something I need to make a habit.

4. Listen to Your Needs

One of my goals this year has been to be more socially active. I don’t mean in regards to hanging out with family or close friends (which I find relaxing), but in regards to taking part in creative communities, attending open mics and readings, and participating in other ways with strangers and acquaintances in ways that tires out my introverted soul.

Yesterday, I planned to attend a book release party in Oakland, which would have been a lot of fun. I love hearing other writers read their work; it’s inspiring. But by the end of my workday, I could feel the level of exhaustion seeping into my skull and bones and I thought about the commute over the bay and how late I would get home — and I knew that I would be draining myself too much by going. So, instead I headed home and took some time to rest and recharge.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in feeling like you want or have to do all the things. But it’s important to listen to your body and your heart and pay attention to those moments when you know you need to take a step back and rest.

5. Just Breathe

Whenever I’m stressed out, I find that my breathing becomes shallower and my chest starts to feel tight. Taking a single deep breath or several connected deep breaths loosens the tightness in my chest. The stress usually remains, but the extra air helps relax me enough that I can rethink and re-approach whatever it is that I’m facing, or at least help pull me back to the present moment instead of letting my mind spiral.

A side note: When I take a deep breath in the middle of a conversation with someone, I often notice that the person I’m talking to unconsciously respond by taking a deep breath themselves, their shoulders relaxing a bit. I’ve had it happen in reverse, too, where I’ve responded to someone else’s deep breath with a deep breath of my own. Energy spreads between people in subtle ways and it seems that sometimes calming your own energy can help other people calm theirs.

How do you find ways to relax when you are feeling overwhelmed? Any suggestions?