Ways to create order when you are feeling overwhelmed

UCLA psychiatrist Kunmi Sobowale shares four strategies to create order when you’re feeling overwhelmed

Some days things can just feel overwhelming, especially now during the COVID-19 outbreak. It may feel like our problems are too big to solve and that we’re stuck facing everything alone.

But even when we’re feeling this way, we don’t have to lose optimism or hope. There are things we can do to help take control and create a sense order when we’re feeling overwhelmed. The four skills we recommend to combat feeling overwhelmed are:

  • Having a daily routine
  • Problem-solving
  • Reaching out for help
  • Practicing generosity

Care Package Strategy: Maintain a Routine

One of the best ways to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed is sticking to a schedule. During times of uncertainty, it’s easy for our eating, sleeping, and exercise routines to start to slip. When this happens, we are more likely to feel exhausted and sluggish or tense and irritable. The good news is that making and keeping a schedule can help us feel calmer and more energized for our day. Below are some tips for maintaining a good routine:

  1. Stick to a sleep schedule. Having a regular sleep schedule can help you stay healthy even if you don’t have any fixed obligations.
  2. Maintain good hygiene. When we’re not working or if we’re working from home, there’s less pressure to shower and change our clothes. Making sure we are cleaning up each day can improve our mood and boost our energy.
  3. Have set meals. In times of uncertainty, some of us may be tempted to snack all day and overeat, while others might skip meals and get hangry (angry from being hungry). It’s a good practice to eat balanced meals at the same times each day and avoid too many unhealthy snacks. Those of us who live with others can plan to eat together, and those who are living alone can “meet” someone for lunch online or by phone. In this way, we are more likely to eat healthy and connect with others.
  4. Soak in some sun. Sunlight tells our bodies that it’s time to feel energized during the day. It’s important to get sunlight regularly, especially in the morning. To get your dose of vitamin D, take walks outside (if permitted) or sit by a window or on a balcony.
  5. Find creative ways to exercise. Exercise makes us feel better and keeps our bodies healthy. Even with gyms closed and physical distancing in place, there are creative ways to stay fit. You might try looking on the internet for free exercise videos that can be done at home.
  6. Keep a work “To Do” list and a Special Activities list. Keep a list of things that need to get done at work and a list of Special Activities to do at home. When you start to feel bored or sad, pull out the lists and pick one thing to do. Crossing things off these lists can give you a sense of accomplishment.

Care Package Strategy: Use the Problem-Solving Framework

When feeling overwhelmed, it can be very hard to solve problems. When we’re stressed and worrying, we can put off taking action because we aren’t sure what to do. This problem-solving framework created by Raphael Rose, PhD, can help us decide what we should do:

Step 1: Write a clear and specific description of the problem. Answer the questions “Who? What? Where? and When?””

Step 2: Brainstorm as many solutions as you can for this problem. All options should be considered.

Step 3: Rate the solutions, considering pros and cons of time, effort, cost, possible negative consequences, and need to rely on others.

Step 4: Choose the solution(s) that have the fewest cons and can be done quickly.

Step 5: Make an action plan with steps including who, what, where, when, and how.

On your own: Walk through Problem-Solving worksheet

Care Package Strategy: Reach out for help

We all need help and support from others sometimes. Asking for help can reduce our stress. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be hard to know who to approach and what to ask. In fact, many of us feel so uncomfortable asking for help that we may be tempted to avoid others or isolate when we need them most. We recommend using the DEAR MAN strategy developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABPP, to help you describe what you need and how to ask for it. As a first step, it’s good to have a list of potential helpers before you work through the DEAR MAN strategy.

On your own: Create your potential helper list.

Below are the steps to use the DEAR MAN strategy

  • D – Describe the situation.
  • E – Express how you feel about it.
  • A – Assert yourself by asking for what you want.
  • R – Reinforce (reward) the person by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want or need.
  • M – (Be) Mindful of your goals and stay on topic.
  • A – Act confident by communicating directly with a firm tone and good eye contact.
  • N – (Be willing to) Negotiate because sometimes we need to compromise to get what we need.

If the person you contacted can’t give you what you need, don’t give up. Try another person and see if you get a different result.

Care Package Strategy: Practice Generosity

The final strategy we share is practicing generosity. Research shows that when we focus on how we can help others, it actually makes us feel less overwhelmed. There are several positive outcomes from practicing generosity: we feel good about what we did, we get positive feedback from the person we helped, we create good will, and we may even cause a ripple effect where the person we helped chooses to help others.

On your own: Create a list of people who you might help

Try out one of the strategies when you are feeling overwhelmed

Some of the strategies described above can be used in advance to help avoid feeling overwhelmed, and all of them can be used in a moment when you are feeling overwhelmed. We hope you will try them out.

Downloadable Resources to Use on Your Own

Information Sheet:

Pre-Work Lists:

How-to Guides

Fillable Activity