Maybe you’re struggling to fall asleep because your brain is running through to-do lists or you’re filling yourself with caffeine to stay energized. Maybe you’re skipping fun activities to finish time-sensitive work. Maybe you’re just busy and can’t afford to take a break.
We get it; you have a lot going on. But if you’re continuously telling yourself “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” you’re probably headed straight toward burnout.
Before you pour yourself a third cup of coffee or say “yes” to another project, stop and take a moment to reflect on where you’re at emotionally. Being overwhelmed on a perpetual basis will eventually take its toll on your body and mind if you don't address it.
Identify what’s overwhelming you
You might have taken on extra work shifts or accepted more work for less pay, for whatever reason, believing the exhaustion to be short-lived, but how long can you maintain this lifestyle? Is this sustainable? Have you pushed yourself too far?
“The first steps to dealing with overwhelming emotions include taking a deep breath, acknowledging those emotions, and trying to understand the roots of where those emotions come from,” says Nikole Benders-Hadi, MD, medical director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand.
Pay close attention to your body, marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein, suggests. Does your jaw clench, your heart race? Once you identify the physical signs of stress, you can think more critically about the source of that stress.
Likely, you’re taking on more than you can handle. While it may seem as though you don’t have any other options, know that there are always things you can do to ease the stress. You just have to recognize the feelings first so you can address them.
Determine your priorities
When your manager assigns you to a new client or asks you to take on more obligations, this can push your past your emotional limits, especially if you’re already feeling overwhelmed by non-work things. While it’s far too easy to accept the work without complaint, you need to first prioritize what’s important to you so you can best navigate these unexpected situations.
Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D, MHC, licensed psychologist and owner of Chrysocolla Counseling, PLLC, recommends taking an assessment of your values.
These answers will change, which is why we need to keep returning to them. You might be focused solely on getting a promotion at this time, or spending quality time with your children, or saving money while you grow your side business. Your daily tasks should be reflective of your priorities.
If your children are a priority during this time, but your work hours are making it impossible to see your children for more than an hour each day, then you need to make a change. Ask your manager if you can adjust your work schedule or ask if another coworker can take on the next client.
Read more: How to Delegate Like a Boss
Build a sustainable routine
While it’s easy to sacrifice sleep or remind yourself that you’ll get free time on the weekends, even if you never do, taking on more than you can handle will overwhelm you. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; your mental health is a non-negotiable and it should be treated as such.
“Waiting to take a break until you have completed your impossibly long to-do list will put you on the fast track to burnout,” Darnley says.
Epstein recommends building a routine. This could include deep breathing, taking a 10-minute walk around the block, making a cup of tea, or changing your scenery, before thoughtfully approaching your next task. This could mean making a list of your most important tasks and breaking them down into smaller, more achievable tasks.
Your routine should align with your priorities, too. If you want to spend more time on something, then you need to schedule it into your week instead of waiting to do it when time allows (which it may never).
Far too often we get caught up in all of the tasks we have to do rather than delegating time to actually do them. When you set aside 30 minutes for a workout, for instance, you’re giving yourself permission to focus solely on that task and nothing else.
Consider making a significant change
Sometimes the smallest changes make the biggest difference. Turning off all screens two hours before bed can help you fall asleep quicker. Cutting the time on work calls from one hour to 30 minutes can free up time in your day. Scheduling a weekly call with your manager to discuss work tasks can help in prioritizing what’s most important.
If the stress isn’t stopping, though, you need to think bigger. Epstein recommends:
Doing a deep dive into patterns of stress and overwhelm
Forming new habits and responses to stress
Taking up a mindfulness practice
Working with a therapist to see if there’s something deeper going on
“Focus on things that are under your control instead of things [that aren’t],” Benders-Hadi says.
If, after making deliberate changes, you’re still feeling overwhelmed, then it may be time to make a career change or power move. While this can seem like a daunting (and yes, overwhelming) task, it doesn’t have to be. Take your time considering what the best long-term plan is for you and your family and what’s required to get there. You may actually be surprised to find that there are many other career paths that are better suited for you.
Read more: 25+ Short-Term Goals to Strive for Right Now
About our sources
Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi is a board-certified psychiatrist who joined Doctor On Demand in 2015. She is currently their director of behavioral health. Benders-Hadi has trained at some of the top universities in the country, including Johns Hopkins University, New York University School of Medicine, and Columbia University.
Sarah Epstein is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist. Her clients are busy professionals struggling with depression and anxiety, relationship distress, career transitions, trauma, grief, and self-esteem issues. She also helps couples address old conflicts, improve communication skills, increase emotional and sexual intimacy, and move past hurts and betrayals.
Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D, MHC, licensed psychologist and owner of Chrysocolla Counseling, PLLC, which provides concierge psychological services to children and postpartum mothers in the Philadelphia area.