I had my first panic attack at sixteen years old while I was working as a waitress. Several large groups came into the dining room at once and I was the only one on staff. As the orders and requests piled up faster than I could keep track of them, my chest tightened, my heartbeat quickened, and my breath became rapid.
I’ve learned a lot about anxiety since then. For the past many years, through trial and error, I’ve figured out what to do when I feel overwhelmed so my overwhelm doesn’t transform into panic.
Feeling overwhelmed is both a mental and a physical experience. When we perceive an event or set of events as more than we can handle, our amygdala (the fear sensor in the brain) activates and sounds the alarm throughout our bodies. When the amygdala is active, the body’s stress response switches on the sympathetic nervous system—which increases heart rate, raises blood pressure, constricts the bowels, induces sweat, and basically makes us feel what I felt at sixteen during a panic attack, albeit often at a milder level.
These days, when my to-do list runs over into two pages—which it often does—I still tend to feel overwhelmed. But thankfully, I’ve learned how to flip the switch from overwhelm and anxiety to confident excitement instilled with an attitude of “You’ve got this, girl!”
What’s my secret? Simply understanding the physical mechanism happening in my brain and body so I can short-circuit the wiring of worry and divert the path to panic.
1. Practice mindfulness.
I teach mindfulness to elementary school students and the practice is so simple, even five-year-olds can master it. Mindfulness is simply the act of bringing your awareness to the present moment. Close your eyes, take deep breaths, feel your pulse, and focus in turn on each of your five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Anchor yourself in your body as a way to get out of your head. Deep breaths send oxygen to the brain, which soothes the amygdala and calms the stress response.
2. Find something to appreciate.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, gratitude might be the last thing on your mind. But focusing on something you feel grateful for releases dopamine in your brain, and dopamine is a great motivating hormone that compels you to do more of whatever it is that gave you the hit. For a few minutes, stop obsessing over how much you still have to do, and appreciate how much you’ve already done. Switch your perspective from pessimistic to optimistic and let the power of gratitude boost your confidence and productivity.
3. Take a break.
Sometimes you need to change your perspective before you can move forward. Even a quick walk can provide a shift in your mental, emotional, or physical state. Get some fresh air (more of that amygdala-soothing oxygen!), give yourself a change of scenery, and see your situation from fresh eyes once you’ve had a bit of respite. You’ll most likely find that you can accomplish more, in less time, and with less angst, once you’ve taken a break. You’ll be ready to divide and conquer with renewed energy and a clear head.
Even though hitting the gym or a yoga class might feel like the last thing you want to do when your plate is full and you know you should be getting things done, exercise can actually help you be more efficient (and calm you down). Even mild exercise induces endorphins, which calm the body’s reactionary stress response and provide motivation to move forward with your day. When your amygdala’s fear alarm is deactivated, your brain’s prefrontal cortex can do its job of clear thinking and logical reasoning more easily.
I have definitely fallen into the trap of trying to do everything myself, but I’ve learned that I am most successful when I have a support team. Perhaps you are super creative, but paperwork is your kryptonite. Maybe you need some help keeping on top of the chores at home, so you can focus on other goals. Build a support system, especially of people that love and excel at the things that you don’t, and call on it to get you through.
6. Be realistic.
You can’t do it all. There are only so many hours in a day and you really need to be sleeping for at least eight of them. If you simply can’t fit it all into your waking hours, you may have to cut something. Don’t let what you cut be the things that nurture your health: sleep, exercise, healthy food, and time with loved ones. Delegate—even if it’s hard to trust that another person will take care of things as well as you will. When you’re overwhelmed, you have to let go of some amount of control in order to find relief.
7. Make a plan.
I’m such a planner that I even wrote a book called The Joy Plan, about how I made a plan to create joy in my life. Having a plan definitely helps me calm down. When I see it laid out on paper, spreadsheet, Venn diagram, or whatever, I know that all I have to do is take the very next step. As long as I keep following the plan, I don’t even have to think about what the next step will be because it’s already laid out for me. This approach works for me, and if you’re a planner like I am, I’m guessing it will work for you too. Plan it out, and then just take the next step.
When you’re drowning, often the best thing to do is flip over on your back and float. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the best approach is similar. Recognize that you are having a physical response (your amygdala is active, your body is going into fight-or-flight mode) to a mental reaction (“I can’t handle this!”). These simple tools will help you calm both your mental and physical response so you can turn overwhelm into opportunity.