Overwhelm – taking those first steps out of the swamp…

By Karen Amos

The problem with overwhelm is… well, it’s overwhelming!

Yes, I realise that’s pretty obvious, but if it’s really that obvious, why don’t we easily sort it out and feel more in control?

Because… yes, that’s right – it’s overwhelming.  The Cambridge dictionary describes overwhelm as ‘to be too much to deal with’. (1.)  So there you have it – how can you deal with something, which by definition leaves you feeling as if you can’t?

Overwhelm sucks us down and dulls our responses and behaviours, sapping your energy and confidence.  It’s a swamp land for your productivity and wellbeing.

So here’s how to deal with the stuff that feels like it’s too much to deal with…!

1.  Accept there is no ‘one-step, easy answer’ to overwhelm

Overwhelm means different things to different people, at different times.  There are often several contributing factors, each of which compound the other.  This is why we can’t often find a way through – and why we often don’t even know where to start.  Acknowledging what’s going on for you – and importantly, making a conscious decision to change things for the better is a great start though.

2.  If you don’t know where to start, start in the easiest place

Because overwhelm then leaves us powerless in its grip, we often do nothing.  We don’t know what the ‘best’ thing to do is, or what the solution is.  So we do the rabbit in the headlights routine.  Often though, just taking one small step can start to lift us out of the swamp.  And each step out, increases our capacity to gain control, energy and impetus.  So don’t wait for the whole solution, just take the one small, easy step you know will lead you in the right direction.

3.  Overcome the fear of switching off

Whilst we know we would benefit from taking proper time out, this can actually feel pretty scary when you’re under pressure.  The problem is that trying to plough through is often counter-productive, leaving us even more exhausted, but the bogeyman of letting go can really hold us in its grip.  Rationalising how you will benefit from even a short amount of time out will help you make that decision.  Remind yourself for example, how much more productive you will be the next day if you turn off your smart phone and have an early night, or even just finish work at a normal time for once, to go do something nice with your loved ones.

4.  Break tasks and activities down

If we see a large, complex or long-term problem, it’s hard to know where to even start – and the positive feelings of achievement aren’t so easily found as we try to plough our way through.  Instead, break your goals/outcomes down into smaller steps that you can tick off frequently.  That way you can see your progress and more importantly gain the feelings of satisfaction and control that come with this.  This is even true of smaller, personal habits – e.g. saying you’re going to do physical exercise/training 3 times a week can seem too much and mean you don’t even start.  However, saying you’ll go to spin class on Monday evening, do a 30 minute run on Wednesday and a long walk at the weekend can much more easily be planned in – and ticked off each day.

5.  Get your priorities right

When we feel so overwhelmed with our workload, there’s a danger that we end up working on completely the wrong things.  These often swing between the jobs (or people) who shout the loudest, or the things that are easiest and least risky.  Neither of these necessarily are the right thing though.  (And if you think this isn’t you, just remind yourself about the times you’ve ended up doing the dusting rather than tackle a gnarly task!  Yeah, of course, we’d all choose dusting as our new favourite hobby right?!)  Instead, take a few minutes to check through everything that’s going on and ask yourself:

  • What could and should be dropped off my to-do list (or even completely off my radar) at this point in time?
  • Are there any quick wins here, that will buy me more time and energy moving forwards?
  • What’s the most important thing here?
  • What are the things that no-one would really notice if I didn’t do?
  • If I assume I don’t have time or energy to do everything that’s expected of me, what will I have to put down first?
  • Where’s the ‘noise’ coming from?  Is this legitimately something I should be listening to?  If not, how do I tune it out?

If you were only going to do one thing right now, I’d recommend taking a few minutes away to ask yourself some of these questions.  Then take one step – just one – that will start to take you in the right direction and lead you out of the overwhelm swamp.


  1. OVERWHELM | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary

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Karen Amos is an executive coach and founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports under-pressure leaders and managers  to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a practical, down-to-earth approach to improving working lives through better wellbeing, leadership, communication and working relationships.