How to Feel More in Control When Life Gets Overwhelming

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” ~Confucius

I’m in the middle of a career transition and it hasn’t been easy. For the first few months after quitting my job—a job which I thought should have been perfect, where I thought I would stay for years—I was paralyzed into inaction regarding anything career-related. I had lost confidence in my own judgment; after all, I had thought that job would be the one and it wasn’t, so did I even really know what I wanted?

This kind of self-doubt makes me second-guess myself to the extreme—my goals, my desires, and even the validity of my feelings. This often means I start doing something, question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, feel stressed and overwhelmed, and then end up doing nothing.

I’m still in this transition, but where once the self-doubt and overwhelm paralyzed me every day, I’m now taking back control and beginning to shape my life how I want it.

First, let me present you with a story. Jessica is a high school student in the middle of taking the SAT. She really wants to do well because she knows that getting a higher score improves her chances of getting into her dream school and qualifying for scholarships.

Everyone has told her how important the SAT is, how hard it is to do well, and (unfortunately) how unlikely she is to get her goal score. On the test, she reaches a tough question and has no clue how to answer it. Here are two of her choices:

-Option A: Jessica racks her brain, her mind filled with thoughts of her dream school slipping away; she tries a few different methods but only manages to eliminate one incorrect choice; she second-guesses herself and then realizes that time has slipped away from her and, feeling anxious and flustered, she rushes through the rest of the test.

-Option B: She skips the question, continuing with the rest of the test and answering all the questions she feels confident about. When she returns to the difficult question, she finds that it is not as hard as it first seemed and is able to solve it with confidence. She remains in control of her test experience and finishes the test with confidence.

What does this example have to do with those of us who aren’t high school teenagers and are going through stressful times? A lot in fact.

When Jessica encounters an obstacle in an already-stressful time, she can try to force her way through it, as in Option A, or skip the question and come back to it, as in Option B.

As a test prep instructor, I teach my students to do the second option through a guided exercise, and the students are surprised to find how much easier the “hard” questions are after answering the easier ones. The second approach builds up confidence, while the first approach increases test anxiety.

I wondered if I might be able to apply this test-taking strategy to life or if it was too ridiculous to work. As it turns out, by temporarily turning my attention to something else—’skipping’ the problem with the intention to return to it later—I was able to minimize my feelings of overwhelm and take steps that I was once paralyzed to take, steps like learning new skills.

When faced with overwhelm, the best way to handle it is to stop and do something else. This holds true whether we are taking a test or facing a more complex source of stress.

We rarely do this because it is counterintuitive. When we feel overwhelmed, we often feel that there’s too much to do, there’s not enough time or resources, we don’t know where to start, and in general our goals feel unattainable. If there’s so much to do and so little time, how can we justify “wasting” time doing something else? Won’t that just delay our goals further?

However, by seeing how ineffective Option A is for Jessica, I realized there might be a parallel to other aspects of life. In the same amount of time that Jessica could spend being frustrated or anxious, she can choose to say “not yet” or “not right now” and move on to something else, knowing that the problem will be sitting right where it was.

Now, whenever I notice the constricting sensation of overwhelm, I know that my next step is to stop whatever I’m doing and switch gears. I could be ruminating, folding laundry, or writing, but no matter what I must stop and do something else.

An amazing thing happens when I do this: I regain control over the shape of my life.

I may not have control over all my life circumstances or even my emotions, but I do control how I react. When I choose to react in ways that nourish my sense of well-being and provide me with a sense of accomplishment, I am able to face challenges for what they are.

If sitting down to write a blog post seems especially daunting right now, then I’ll do some chores. If the chores seem difficult, I’ll go for a walk. If a walk seems like too much, I’ll journal stream-of-consciousness.

The specific task that overwhelms us and the task we choose to do instead aren’t what matters most for this method. It’s the inherent power of choice that allows us to brush off societal definitions of success and pursue our own ever-evolving sense of success.

While it’s not possible to provide specific alternative actions for every scenario, here are some general ideas of things to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

-Go somewhere. It could be as simple as going to another room or going somewhere across town. The change of scenery can bring a fresh perspective to a prior problem.

-Make something. You could draw, cook, or fold a paper airplane. When we engage our creativity, we have fun and build confidence through effort rather than results.

-I often feel energized but directionless when I am overwhelmed, and maybe you do too. Enjoying your favorite type of exercise can improve your mood and release pent-up energy.

-Whether you connect with loved ones or with a spiritual/religious practice, connecting with others helps us feel supported when we try something new.

While overwhelm is bound to happen in our lives, we can choose to react in ways that enable us to feel confident and in control. It’s not the same as running away from your problems; it’s finding a circuitous route that has an immediate benefit of improving your sense of well-being and long-term benefit of helping you take action and find solutions.

By taking charge of the content of our lives, we can find that even when overwhelm happens, we have the tools to work with it and the power to shape our lives through our choices and actions.

About Gianna Cifredo

Gianna Cifredo is a higher education professional and writer. She is working on a novel, spends her free time in her garden, and dreams of raising chickens. You can find her on Instagram at @gcifredo.

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