You’re cramming for the first big exam of college while trying to have a social life, go to the gym, and drink enough water. You have a big presentation at work to prep for, but you have to pick up your child from daycare at 5 p.m., sew a perfect princess Halloween costume, and clean the house. You have five commitments in one Saturday, none of them are in the same part of town, and you don’t even really like the people you’re seeing.
All of these scenarios sound stressful. But there’s a difference between feeling stressed out for one day, and just being straight up overwhelmed by life and the responsibilities that come with it. Judith Orloff, M.D. a psychiatrist and the author of the upcoming book Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self Care for Sensitive People (out October 22), says that everyone tends to get overwhelmed by work, family, or both at some point. But there are people who feel this way more often. She calls these people “empaths,” who are highly sensitive. They tend to be “emotional sponges,” who empathize with and absorb the feelings and baggage of those around them. “They take on other people’s stress, and they get overwhelmed often because everything seems like it’s coming at you too fast, too often,” she says. Orloff has a quiz in her book that can help you self-assess whether you’re an empath with questions such as “ do arguments make you ill” and “do you need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people.”
But even if you’re not an empath — just really freaking busy — there are coping mechanisms and tools you can utilize to help you feel more in control.
Recognize you’re overwhelmed.
In order to fix it, you have to identify it. It can be easy to just keep jumping from task to task, without stopping to analyze why you’re in such a busy tizzy — especially when there’s too much on your plate
“Tune into your body and notice when you're starting to feel tired, frantic, exhausted, or irritable,” Orloff says. “Are you snapping at people? If you can notice the signs of being overwhelmed and catch them early — before they explode into a blow up — that’s best.”
She notes that people tend to burn out and get to the “I can’t take this anymore” point if they don’t remedy the feeling. In those cases, they often say or do things they regret. “The earlier you catch it, the better,” Orloff says.
“If you wake up and notice mind is frantic with your to-do list, it’s best to take a few deep breaths, look at the sky or a flower, and take a moment to be grateful for your life,” Orloff says.
Habits expert James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, writes in his weekly newsletter that one of the best ways to be productive is to say no.
“How often do people ask you to do something and you just reply, ‘Sure thing,’” Clear writes. “Three days later, you're overwhelmed by how much is on your to-do list. We become frustrated by our obligations even though we were the ones who said yes to them in the first place. It's worth asking if things are necessary. Many of them are not, and a simple “no” will be more productive than whatever work the most efficient person can muster.”
Orloff adds: “Remember that no is a complete sentence.”
Cut out toxic people.
Orloff says that, especially if you’re an empath, you’ll find toxic people to be draining. Their problems can begin to trouble you at unexpected times when you should be focusing on yourself. See as little of these people as possible. If they're part of your family and you can't exactly ditch them, set boundaries with them. Be honest, and let them know that their complaining is actually hurting your mental health. Maybe try setting limits, like: You have five minutes to bitch, and then we're moving onto a conversation about Real Housewives.
If the stress of your loved ones is getting to you, Orloff recommends using a visualization technique. Imagine there's a bubble around you, and negative energy can't penetrate it. It's protecting you from the drama and emotions of your friends and coworkers. “The bubble keeps you safe and not overwhelmed,” she says. This is one way to set boundaries for yourself.
Orloff notes that empaths tend to take on too much responsibility, and they’ll want to do everything for everyone. “That’s a major cause of overwhelm, and it can help to take some stuff off of your plate,” she says.
Clear your calendar.
With this, Orloff says, it’s important to think about where you’re already overbooked. If you’re constantly signing up for morning workout classes but missing them, rejigger your schedule and start working out at night so your mornings aren’t as hectic and you can sleep in a bit longer.
Take a break.
“The key to having a productive life is taking mini-breaks throughout the day, instead of pushing nonstop,” Orloff explains. Plan five or ten minute breaks for yourself in your work day. Go for a walk, read a chapter of a book, or do a short meditation. “If your mind knows there will be a break coming, it makes a big difference,” Orloff says.