Life getting on top of you? Here’s how to tell if you’re feeling overwhelmed or if you simply have too much to do, writes Anna Bartter.

It seems we’re all struggling with feeling overwhelmed right now. Post-pandemic resolutions to slow down, say ‘no’ more often and to keep things simple seem to have faded as fast as our summer tans.We’re all struggling with difficult-to-shake colds and low-level malaise.

You’ve probably heard your own colleagues talk of feeling utterly overwhelmed. But is that really the right word? What if we’re not overwhelmed but overloaded – with too much to do? It sounds blindingly obvious but there is a subtle difference between the two states. 

We asked the experts what we can do to break the overwhelm/overloading cycle.

What does feeling overwhelmed look like?

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly thinking more than three steps ahead of myself. From meal-prepping to social engagements, my brain is frazzled by the end of the day, when I’m likely to collapse in a heap on the sofa and promptly fall asleep.

Some days I feel wired from the second I wake up. My heart is racing, I’m sweating more than usual and I feel constantly on edge knowing how much there is to get done.

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According to lifestyle and wellness coach Joanna Shurety, these are all common signs of feeling overwhelmed. “Being permanently switched on is a strong indicator of being overwhelmed,” she says. “If you’re constantly wired, struggling to get to sleep – or struggling to remain asleep – or you’re easily distracted and unable to focus on one thing at a time, then you’re more than likely suffering from being overwhelmed.”

Psychologist Dr Laura Williams agrees. “When I see feelings of overwhelm presenting in my clients, what I’m seeing is emotional dysregulation,” she explains. “Feeling overwhelmed is that point at which strategies to manage our busy lives have not been implemented, and we’re trying to keep on going regardless. This has a detrimental impact on our ability to cope – and we switch from feeling overloaded to being overwhelmed.” 

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What about being overloaded?

The experts agree that the two feelings are closely linked, but it is important to know the difference. It’s also interesting to note that admitting to being overloaded might be easier than confessing you’re feeling overwhelmed.

The connotation of overload is straightforward and less emotional than feeling overwhelmed, which carries with it an impression of not being able to cope. Shurety explains: “Overload is what we accept onto ourselves and overwhelm is what we feel about the situation.”

“Being overloaded, for me, is a more practical thing,” says Williams. “It describes many women, and it is simply that our task lists are too long for the time and capacity we have in our days.”

It’s important to note that some level of stress and busyness is normal, and we can cope with it, Williams explains. “We might get tearful, argue with a partner or get irritable with our kids, and this is OK. The difference is when this pattern continues over an extended period of time.”

So, if you often feel like this, it’s time to take a look at how to make a change. 

What can we do about it?

The experts agree that feeling overwhelmed tends to stem from being overloadedfor too long. And the chances are that if you’ve been struggling with feeling overloaded, you’re likely to tip into feeling overwhelmed soon, if you’re not already there.

So, what can we do about it? 

Ask for help

One of the simplest things we can do when we’re struggling is to ask for help, but this is easier said than done, right? “Asking for help from family and friends is a key strategy to managing feelings of being overwhelmed,” says Williams. “It’s also vital to cultivate the belief that we are not built to do it all, and that’s OK.” 

While it’s difficult to reach out for help, and in some situations (hello, managers) it might be impractical, learning to graciously ask for and accept help is a life skill. 

Let things go

“It can feel really uncomfortable to say no to things,” says Shurety, “but ultimately, this enables us to be more effective, focused and present – all essential factors in dealing with life’s ups and downs.”

And this doesn’t just mean saying no to other people; it includes saying no to yourself as well. It’s about challenging that voice in your head that’s saying you can’t chill until the dishwasher has been loaded – you (and your dishwasher) really can cope with leaving it for a few moments while you take five minutes to relax. 

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Put some boundaries in place

“The key is to really look at what’s causing your feelings,” says Shurety. “Are you trying to do too much? Are you pushing yourself too hard to do everything, neglecting rest and recovery or the habits that keep us resilient?”

If this sounds like you, it’s time for some better boundaries.

“Boundaries are really important to enable us to have the time and space to plan, problem solve, or just recover from mental and physical load,” explains Shurety. “It takes discipline, but boundaries are essential in order to protect our mental health and physical state.”

Soothe your nervous system

“Interestingly, when people are feeling overwhelmed, often what they will do, behaviourally, is to step back and retreat from life a bit, which is ironically what they needed to do in the first place,” says Williams. “Once you’re at this stage, you need to find ways to soothe your nervous system and incorporate these daily. This can be whatever works for you individually, and might be walks in nature, reading a book, wild swimming or meditation – the possibilities are endless and different for everyone.”

Williams advises that “once emotional regulation has returned to normal levels, you can go back to your task list to work out how overloaded you are, and what needs to give”.

Little and often is best

The key is that these coping strategies shouldn’t only be used once you’ve reached the point of burnout. Incorporating some level of balance into your daily routine will help you to future-proof yourself against being repeatedly overwhelmed. “It doesn’t need to be lots of time,” says Shurety, “but it does need to be some time every day.”

With the festive season approaching, it’s going to be more important than ever to ensure that we’re being honest and realistic in our to-do lists, so take this as permission to put your feet up and ditch your to-do list, even if it’s only for half an hour. 

Images: Getty

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