Dealing with stress & overwhelm has been a constant part of my adult life. As far as I can tell, almost everyone deals with this issue on some level, so today I want to talk about it.
I’m talking about mental exhaustion — like when you’ve been studying for hours and feel like you can’t fit one more thing into your brain. Or when you’ve just made so many decisions in a day and had so many demands on your time that you can’t seem to get your brain to keep working.
I’m talking about physical exhaustion — like when you were up with kids all night, then you had to get up early in order to get all of your work done before the day ran out. Then you stayed up late working on some project, and you had to do it all again the next day, the day after that, and for the seventeen weeks that followed.
I’m talking about emotional exhaustion — like when you had to help a friend or family member through an intense issue while trying to simultaneously keep your own insecurity, fear and self-doubt in check.
If it were just one or two of these issues, you could probably deal with it. Heck, you could probably handle four or five. But what about those times when you’ve had to deal with like.. twenty of them? At the same time? And when they keep popping up day after day, week after week, it kinda starts to get to you… you know?
For the faithful and conscientious, I don’t think stress and overwhelm are inescapable. However, I do believe we can get better at minimizing and managing it. Here’s the “recipe” I follow any time I feel these feelings starting to set in:
1. Take care of yourself. Get a grip.
It’s a little counterintuitive, but my FIRST step when I realize I’m feeling overwhelmed is to take care of myself. I’ve just learned that when I’m in that dark place I’m no good to anyone. By trying to force myself to “plow through”, I usually end up doing more damage than good to myself and others. So I like to take at least a small step back — take a power nap, get some exercise, leave work early.. whatever it takes. For more serious bouts, I may need to take a 3-day weekend or plan a fun (but simple!) outing with my family. One thing that never fails to rejuvenate me is to work on my relationship with God. That means reading the scriptures, praying, performing some quiet Christian service, singing a hymn or meditating.
As in all things, our example here is the Savior. In reading about His ministry lately, I was impressed as I noticed how often he rested. Surely if anyone was busy it was Jesus — he had a lot to accomplish in just 3 years. But even so, even He was careful to build in periods of rest and renewal. Another thing that impressed me was how he never felt sorry for himself. Even in the very act of being crucified, he looked outward at his mother and performed service by asking his disciples to care for her after he was gone.
2. Set inspired priorities (with patience!)
One of my favorite quotes is from Anne Morrow Lindbergh who said “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” There are a lot of worthy places to spend our time! But there’s a basic math problem that results when you add up all of the time it would take to do it and compare it to the number of hours in a day. Like it or not, we HAVE to prioritize, and that means saying “no” to certain things.
Once I’ve got my mind right (#1), I go to work somewhat ruthlessly to set some priorities. I carefully look at each “role” or “responsibility” in my life and decide what needs to be scaled back, changed, delegated or outright dropped. When I’m done, I take a look at the total time needed to accomplish everything and if it’s still more than I have hours in the day, I go back and cut again. The goal here is to cut my schedule down to “I could handle this pretty sustainably forever” rather than “I could only get all of this done if I had a really good day, super human strength and nothing went wrong.”
In the scriptures, the Lord taught us “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided.” Similarly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Unwisely, we often write checks against our time accounts as we never would dare do, comparably, against our bank accounts. Sometimes we make so many commitments that they become like the vines in the allegory of Jacob, threatening to “overcome the roots,” including the “roots” of family relationships, friendships, and relationships with God.”
3. Re-set expectations
Once you’ve made the tough decisions (#2), it’s time to implement them. Start with the most pressing/biggest cuts and work your way down. What I’ve found at step #3 is that it’s pretty much never as bad as you would think. People don’t depend on us as much as we think they do. I think in many cases they’ve already been watching us and expecting the news, so bringing it up just opens up an opportunity to collaborate on a solution.
4. Ask for help
If God had wanted you to get through life alone, he would’ve put you on an earth all by yourself. What seems hard to you is easy to someone else, so let them share your burden! It can be hard to ask, but just think about how you feel when someone really needs your help — willing, right? For each of the remaining tasks/responsibilities on your plate after #2, ask yourself “who do I know that would be awesome at solving this problem?” then enlist their help.
As you think about who to ask for help, don’t forget Heavenly Father. He’s the ruler and creator of the entire universe. His knowledge, wisdom and power span from eternity to eternity — and he’s your dad! There is literally nothing you can do that will make him stop loving you, but he will not come into your life until you ask him to. Say a heartfelt prayer, then watch for His hand in your life.
5. Be diligent
Once you’ve taken care of your own mental health, set priorities, re-set expectations and asked for help, it’s time to take a breath, square your shoulders and go to work. Rather than bursting onto the scene, I recommend taking a “shifted gear” approach — slower perhaps, but also stronger. As you begin each day, focus on keeping your head down and accomplishing as much as you can, as opposed to worrying about whether it was “enough” or thinking about everything else that needs to be done.
I’ve been following this “prescription” for a couple of years now, and while I would never say that my stress and overwhelm has gone away, it has definitely helped. When I’m in that dark place, it always feels like there’s nothing that will work, but when I force myself to start down these steps, the clouds invariably start to clear.
What do you do to deal with stress and overwhelm?