Who hasn’t experienced overwhelm from time to time, especially during the past two years? Overwhelm drains you and it’s challenging to handle, whether it’s quick or lasts for a while. The family caregivers I work with certainly suffer from overwhelm often enough. And I still suffer from it sometimes, too, even though I do a lot of work to prevent it. After all, I’ve got a lot going on – I’m a CEO, mother of two teenagers, wife and caregiver for my own mother.

Becoming overwhelmed is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. We live in a busy world and there are times when life is going to get to us.

Take last week, for example. I was feeling the pressure of managing already-full days. Then I woke up to the news that Ukraine had been attacked and forced into a war. My feelings of outrage, helplessness, grief, shock and powerlessness were (and still are) too much to process all at once. Oh, hello, overwhelm – there you are again!

Why overwhelm can ACTUALLY be helpful

That is the nature of overwhelm: to have more going on than our brains can manage. Whether dealing with stress, too many obligations at once, or an emergency,* overwhelm happens when our human minds get flooded with thoughts, feelings and probably some stress hormones. It simply becomes too much

Would it surprise you to learn that there’s actually a lot of helpful information buried in that flood of overwhelm? When you look at overwhelm as your mind crying out for help, you can use it as an experience to start taking better care of yourself.  

Luckily, learning how to do this is a skill that anybody can learn.

There’s data in the overwhelm

Your best chance to get information, or raw data, out of your overwhelm is to see what’s actually happening in both your life and your mind, without trying to edit or sanitize it. When you can notice and name the gritty mess, you’re going to get to the data a lot faster. Then, you can begin to figure out what you want instead.

I know this is going to take some courage. It takes bravery to look at raw data with hope for wisdom instead of with bitter self-criticism. It’s normal to want to resist this process and nothing has gone wrong with you! Your human brain would rather hide from your overwhelm than face it. If you’re feeling anxious, take a deep breath. You can always pause and come back to this later.

When you’re ready to look for it, your data will reveal what’s going on inside and outside of you. You’ll likely find observations about circumstances, situations, and people in your life, as well as lots of details about your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, decisions, actions and behaviors.

My favorite way to find this data is a self-guided writing method called a “thought download.” I wrote a free guide on how to do it without using judgment as a weapon against yourself, and you can find it here. You can also turn to other mindfulness and self-compassion practices, especially ones that are designed to help you capture the data so you can look at it later. Another excellent option is to work with a therapist, or a life coach (like me), who can give you personalized help looking at your overwhelm clearly yet gently. 

Put your data to work for you

You might feel a sense of relief from the very act of noticing and naming your overwhelm. I’ve experienced this plenty of times, and it’s one of the reasons I make doing thought downloads a daily practice. 

If you aren’t getting enough relief yet and want to keep listening for what your overwhelm is trying to tell you, though, you’ll need to interpret what you’ve observed.

Patterns, judgmental thoughts, and unmet needs

Look back over your observations and notice these specific things: patterns; harsh or judgmental thoughts; and needs, wants and desires that aren’t being met. Patterns might be related to situations, people, events, or behavior. Harsh or judgmental thoughts will often be lurking behind keywords like should, shouldn’t, if only, fault, blame, ashamed, always, never and every. All needs that aren’t being met are good clues, from the most fundamental needs like sleep, nutrition and exercise, to your personal desires for education, fun, creativity, travel or whatever is missing right now.

You can put your data to work right away by making two short lists. One list should be two or three things that you can see are bothering you the most, and the other will be noting a few things that would be relatively painless to address. These are the things your overwhelm is trying to tell you are most important to you today. You can work on managing or changing the big things over time, while you can get immediate relief by working on the painless things right now.

Know this for certain: there is no right or wrong when it comes to the observations you made about your overwhelm. Your overwhelm is unique to you and will probably change over time. Thoughts and feelings really can be nothing more than data, and you don’t need permission to see your data for what it really is. Learn to trust your observations, because you are the best expert on you.

If you do see something that is particularly painful for you, take a deep breath and know that nothing has gone wrong with you. You may be able to take some of the sting out of a particular observation by asking “Is it really true?”; “What about this is within my control?”; and “What am I really responsible for here?”

Looking ahead, set boundaries

Going forward, there are more ways to help yourself make adjustments to your life than I can possibly name here. For example, you can tune out the causes. You can  learn to ask for help and let people help you. You can use mindfulness practices like meditation and self-compassion to become more gentle and accepting of yourself over time. You might commit to greater self-awareness and self-care by finding a professional to help you or joining a supportive group.

I can say with some certainty that overwhelm will happen again; it’s just part of being human. Setting boundaries is the best tool I know of to both manage it and keep it from getting to you most of the time. Setting a boundary is doing the hard work of deciding in advance when and how you’ll act to protect yourself and your needs. In my work, I’ve found that boundaries are incredibly important to understand but most of us were never taught how to use them. So I created a free community to talk about this incredibly important life skill.

It is possible to see your overwhelm as an urgent message from your mind that it’s time to pay attention. Most importantly, the message contains the exact data you need to get relief from your overwhelm.

We don’t have to give anybody the power to cause overwhelm

Just this morning, I took my own advice: I paid attention to the overwhelm I could feel building up and made it a point to notice what was really overloading me. Then when I got an email with a subject line that read, “World War 3 has already started,” – and I saw that it wasn’t from a trusted or journalistic news source – I immediately hit delete. I might even go back later and unsubscribe from that list, because I know that sensationalized muck can be a trigger for my overwhelm.

I don’t have to give anybody the power to cause me overwhelm any more. That’s one of the most important reasons I set boundaries these days. And one of my boundaries is to carefully choose when and how I will consume the news. 


*Safety always comes first – if you are in a situation where you are being harmed physically or emotionally, get help as soon as you can. Call 911, get to a safe location, or go to NAMI.org to talk to someone right away.

Do you need to find a way to get some rest and take control of your own life again? You can, even if you believe that you can't possibly take care of yourself when the people around you need you so much!

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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