When You Feel Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed. I’ve been there too. And not in a good way like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a spring day, or overwhelmed by soaring music, or overwhelmed by love that fills your heart to bursting. It might not be a 9-1-1 emergency — no need to panic and act quickly, but how to get out from under water or dig a way out of the overwhelming rubble of life?

You could say I’m exaggerating. I’ve never been close to drowning or literally buried by an earthquake. But when I feel overwhelmed, I tend to exaggerate — which makes everything seem even more overwhelming, which seems to be the nature of that particular beast!

So what to do when it’s one of those days, or weeks, or seasons of life? A reader suggested I write a few thoughts “for when you or a loved one feel overwhelmed by life.” Here’s what I’ve learned out of the depths.

Let it wash over you

Instead of panicking and desperately flailing around to get out from under, I find it most helpful to let myself and my loved one feel overwhelmed. Life is overwhelming, and it’s okay to feel that way. If you feel paralyzed, don’t pressure yourself to act. Just breathe. Do the essentials, and leave the rest. Be gentle with yourself, and with those around you. Take a nap if you can. Eat from your sad food group.

Remind yourself that this is not an emergency. It took time for the overwhelm to build, and it will take time to resolve and pass. It’s okay if you have more questions than answers about your life right now. It’s okay if you can’t do everything on your to-do list. Even when your circumstances are definitely not okay — when you or your spouse have been treated unjustly, when you might lose your family or your sanity or the roof over your head — whatever overwhelms you, God is greater.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Isaiah 43:1-3

Lean on God

Too overwhelmed to pray or read Scripture? Then just sit in silence. Or turn to familiar texts like Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer. I still remember the prayer I learned as a child: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” I find comfort in a simple form of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Each Sunday I save the liturgy folder from my church as a resource for Scripture and prayer to use during the week. I tweet out a Scripture verse along with a photo. Sometimes I stumble through one of the songs on the piano. I re-read the words of blessing. For another resource, you might want to explore my “how to pray when you can’t find the words” series listed at the end of this article: How to Pray for People Experiencing Life-Threatening Illness.

Come to me, all you that are weary
     and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Lean on those who love you

Sometimes when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I say to my husband, “I need to go out for dinner.” No, that doesn’t mean we always go out for dinner. Sometimes going out is actually the last thing I want to do. But without exhausting him with all of the details as soon as I see him at the end of our day, it’s a way of letting him know how I’m feeling. Sometimes he cooks. Or just listens. Or sometimes he’s had a hard day too, and we just let ourselves be overwhelmed together.

Do you have a family member or good friend that you can lean on? A sister or brother in the church? A counselor, pastor, or spiritual director to talk to? When you feel too overwhelmed to pray, it’s a gift to have others pray for you. When you’re overwhelmed by daily living, it’s a blessing to have people in your life who can watch your children for the afternoon, or bring you a meal, or help out in some other practical way.

Friends love through all kinds of weather,
    and families stick together in all kinds of trouble.

Proverbs 17:17

I wish that were true for everyone all of the time. But not all of us have friends and families like that, and even those of us who do may find that the people we thought we could count on are not always there for us. Sometimes they too are overwhelmed by life, or preoccupied with other things, or simply unable to respond.

So when I’m overwhelmed or a loved one is overwhelmed, sometimes all we can do is to let that overwhelming flood wash over us, lean on God, and lean on others as best we can, knowing that we’re all fallible and frail and often falter.

Sometimes that’s all that I or you or anyone can do. But as I start to catch my breath, here are two more ideas that I find helpful.

Start somewhere

When I’m overwhelmed mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, Chaos seems to take over. To regain a sense of order, I find it easiest to start with my surroundings. Gathering the dishes that have been left in the living room, the bedroom, downstairs, and everywhere, and at least getting them all into the kitchen. Clearing the bags of recycling away from the front door and stashing them in the garage. lt may seem trivial, but somehow as I put my house in order, I start feeling less overwhelmed and more able to chip away at some of the bigger challenges I face.

Others might start by spending time outdoors in nature, or making just one phone call on their too long to-do list, or deciding to declutter just one closet instead of the whole basement. If you’re dealing with mental illness and overwhelmed beyond self-help solutions, you might need to start with your therapist or doctor. Ask whether a change in dose or medication might help.

I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

Prepare for the next time

If you’re in the middle of being overwhelmed, it’s best to skip this thought entirely. But when that day comes when I’m not quite so overwhelmed — and so far that day has always come for me — I try to get ready for the next time. Because life happens. The overwhelming flood happens. Just as surely as it will pass, it may come again.

That’s why I like take-out coupons and planned-overs wrapped and ready in the freezer. But more than that, it’s important to build relationships and resiliency. Nurture family and friendships. Nurture your relationship with God. Read your Bible. Pray. Practice silence. Go for walks. Get enough sleep. Because these are beautiful blessings in ordinary times that can also see you through the overwhelming flood.

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:14


Writing/Reflection Prompt: What have you learned when you or a loved one has felt overwhelmed by life?


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8 thoughts on “When You Feel Overwhelmed

  1. April, this post is so timely. It arrived in my inbox just as my husband and I were writing our impossibly long to-do list for the day. I especially love the verse from Isaiah. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Thank you April, for these helpful ideas when life gets stressful. I’m forwarding it to my three daughters .

  3. This is a fabulous post, April. Feeling overwhelmed is something we all share, whether from mental illness or not. Thank-you for sharing these reassuring words and scriptures.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Rosalie, and yes, in our fast-paced world with multiple demands, feeling overwhelmed is something we all share. At those times, I’m grateful that we can hold on to God and hold on to one another–and most of all that God is holding on to us!

  4. Thank you so much for this post, April. It is so very what I needed to read today. May God walk with each of us as we let it wash over us, lean on God, and on those who love us!

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