Breathing Space December 2023

by Dan Comer

Overwhelmed? These Strategies May Help
When I ask people in our field how they are, the number one answer is “overwhelmed.” I will guess that it is the same when you ask. It has been my answer at times too. Since I live in the child welfare world, I was wondering if we are unique. Nope. Special, yes, unique, no. According to a 2020 survey of more than 3,000 US residents, conducted by the American Psychological Association, 60 percent of participants reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of issues that America is currently facing. Yes, that was early pandemic time, but I think it would still come out at least the same today. So, are there some actions or strategies that we can practice that might help us cope with overwhelm? Here’s a list that has helped me (and might help you) remember something that has worked before to just feel whelmed:

  1. Reflect on the “why”

A first important step to overcoming overwhelm is to figure out the root cause. The next time you have an overwhelming thought, ask yourself: What’s causing you to feel stressed right now? Once you locate the source, you’re that much closer to problem solving and feeling better.

  1. Accept your feelings

Ignoring or denying your overwhelm likely isn’t going to help (were you raised to “just push through it”?). It’ll just bubble under the surface until you have no choice but to see and deal with it. Instead, acknowledge the fact that you feel overwhelmed, and acknowledge any negative (or incorrect) thoughts that go along with that feeling. 

  1. Practice mindfulness

When you have a million things going on, it can truly be challenging to focus on the here and now. But to turn it around and consciously focus on the present moment is incredibly useful. There’s plenty of ways to practice mindfulness including the following:

  • Meditation
  • Single-tasking, a.k.a. the opposite of multitasking
  • Movement, like yoga, dance, gardening…
  • Mindfulness apps (Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer are all good ones)
  1. Try breathing exercises

I must be a slow learner because I am amazed with the impact each time I consciously practice some form of deep-breathing practice. It is not rocket science (when you feel yourself getting easily overwhelmed, try taking a deep breath and focusing on each inhale and exhale that follows until you feel more at ease) and I feel better sometimes in just two or three good breaths. Look up “box breathing” if would like a little structure.

  1. Focus on what you can control

A definition of anxiety might be “a feeling of being out of control.” So common sense (and science) says focus on what you can control. My prime example is that I often get overwhelmed by climate change. Big things need to happen across the world—nothing I can do there. But I can rake instead of using a leaf blower. I can decide to walk rather than drive at times. What can you do about something you worry about?

  1. Take breaks

We live in a society that doesn’t exactly prioritize rest or self-care. Most of us work a full day, get home, eat dinner, shower, do chores, and get ready for bed. Then we repeat that process the next day and the next, until we get a slice of relaxation on the weekend (that is, if we’re not busy playing catch-up from the week before). Intentionally setting aside time for breaks can reduce the amount of stress you feel from being “on” all the time. Even a 15-minute stretch break during the workday, a 1-minute mindfulness break, or a trip to your favorite local spot to watch the sunset can help. Look up “Pomodoro technique” to learn how to take frequent short breaks—and get more done!

  1. Do what you enjoy 

Are you doing enough of the things that bring you joy? Or are you just grinding through each day, trying to cross off all the tasks on your to-do list before the day ends? Make it a point to set aside time to bring joy into your life. What brings you a little pleasure? Do you do it often enough to call it a ritual? That might be a good goal—have one ritual that you enjoy so much you’d miss it if you didn’t do it. You might consider:

  • Listening to music at a certain time of day
  • Going for a walk
  • Cooking dinner
  • Watching the sunset
  • The couple next door have a cup of coffee together each day at five to signal the end of the workday

Send me an email with your daily joy ritual! (daniel.comer@cuanschutz.edu)

Source: American Psychological Association. (2020, October). Stress in America 2020: A national mental health crisis. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october