Healthy Buffs: Overcoming feelings of being overwhelmed

As we get further into the semester we might feel pressure from all different directions. While it’s important to be aware of our responsibilities, we also need to look out for ourselves and our energy. Here’s how to overcome feelings of being overwhelmed.

Reality checking

The first step is to become mindful of whatever it is we feel overwhelmed by. It can be helpful to write out a list of everything on our minds, like upcoming tests, projects, job stress or relationship issues. However, the act of getting our list onto paper lets us take a deep breath for a moment knowing we can return to the list at any time. It also helps us make an objective, mindful plan for moving forward.

Being mindful isn’t necessarily feeling calm or blissful—rather, it’s about being present and aware of what’s going on for us. Looking at the list in front of us, we can be aware of how we’re feeling (anxious, tired, excited, etc.) and start to break things into smaller, more manageable pieces.

For example, if the most stressful item on the list is an assignment, check in about why it feels so daunting—maybe it feels like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. Once we’re aware of the source of our stress—the size of the project—we can break it up into smaller tasks, like going to office hours with a professor, doing half an hour of research to start, or writing an intro paragraph.

If the stressor is something like a fight with a friend, it’s good to acknowledge what we can and can’t do to make it better. We can reach out and arrange a time to talk things out, but that may mean we don’t meet up for a few days. If we’ve taken the first step but won’t be able to resolve things until then, we can take a break from the issue until it’s time to address it with the friend.

Prioritizing life needs

When we start feeling overwhelmed, even the simple things can take a hit. The best way to minimize the impact of stress is by getting back on track. This means checking in with ourselves according to the HALT acronym: are we Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? If so, these needs should be taken care of before anything else.

For example, if we’re hungry, putting off dinner to keep studying won’t help us in the long run (and might make the last stretch of work unbearable). If we’re tired, we need to get sleep—even if it means not finishing up an assignment until tomorrow. These basic needs are in our control, and taking care of them keeps us functioning and empowered to accomplish the other items on our list.

Doing the next right thing

Sam Randall, program manager at the CU Collegiate Recovery Center (CUCRC), understands how things can pile up and leave us feeling at a loss. When we’re looking at our list, or our minds are racing and we’re feeling overwhelmed, she advises focusing on the “next right thing.”

This means looking at the situation we’re in and focusing on the next simple step that feels right for us. Sometimes it’s dealing with our basic needs like eating; other times it’s tackling the first item on our list like emailing a professor. When we focus in, we can give our full attention and energy to taking that first step: doing the next right thing.

If the next right thing feels too hard to pin down, check in again. What feels the most overwhelming? Can we break it down into pieces? Can we tackle any of it right now? Most importantly, have we done a HALT check-in and taken care of our basic needs?

Repeating this check-in process any time we’re overwhelmed can help us identify the next right thing. And then, when we’re ready, the next one.

Getting support

Everyone goes through periods of stress and feeling overwhelmed. If you’re interested in learning more about how to work with your mind and move forward, check out our free workshops from Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS):

The Healthy Buffs series is brought to you by Wardenburg Health Services. Visit us online at www.colorado.edu/health