How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed

My sons are one- and two-years-old right now and, wow, this alone is enough to find me feeling overwhelmed sometimes. Add to this the fact that I also want to spend quality time with my wife, keep creating articles like this one, meet with 20-30 counseling clients per week, oversee the insurance billing for my counseling center, give workshops and public talks, supervise two student therapists, interview and hire new counselors, and  keep pace with an ever-growing mountain of reading and writing assignments for my PhD program, and it’s a small miracle that I’m able to keep my head screwed on straight from one day to the next. Luckily, I’ve discovered a trick that works wonders to help me handle it all.

When it comes to feeling overwhelmed, our instincts tell us that this is because we have too many items on our plate and that the obvious solution is for us to pare down a bit. I don’t view it this way. After all, sometimes just a single thing can cause us to feel overwhelmed. The way I see it, it’s really not so much about the quantity of stuff in front of us; it’s about the subjective experience of feeling like this stuff, no matter how many things it is, is simply “too much”.

This feeling of “too much” is more about our perspective than reality itself. Most people who know me believe I’ve taken on too much, but rarely do I feel overwhelmed. There are two metaphors I like to use to explain what any of us can do to transform those occasional feelings of being overwhelmed when they crop up, without changing the number of tasks to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.

Metaphor 1.

Our life in any moment is like a puzzle. Maybe this puzzle of ours has many pieces or perhaps just a few. Either way, our goal is to successfully fit all these pieces (the things we want to accomplish) neatly together into a cohesive picture. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, what’s happening is that we’re trying to solve this puzzle of ours in a specific way that doesn’t work.  We’re looking at all our puzzle pieces simultaneously. But this isn’t how a puzzle gets solved!

A puzzle gets solved by taking a methodical approach. First, we comb through the box of pieces in search of the most important ones, the edges and corners. These pieces are easier to find, easier to assemble, and (once connected) literally create a framework on which to add. Next, we tune into the finer details of the pieces themselves, spotting distinctive color schemes and patterns that are easier to solve than, say, the all-blue pieces of a sky or the greens of a grassy field.

In short, we narrow our focus onto the parts of our puzzle that are the most solvable and, through trial and error, piece-by-piece bring the image to life. We reserve the hardest areas for last because, as difficult as these portions may be, we can now see the finish line. Inspired by how much we’ve already accomplished, we are now at our most optimistic and are therefore willing to take on the difficult challenge presented by the last (and hardest) pieces. As each remaining piece finds its home, the puzzle becomes increasingly easier to finish until, Ta-Da!!! We’ve done it.

The main point is that solving a jigsaw puzzle requires, more than anything else, focus. If you look at all the pieces from afar, there’s no way you’ll be able to make progress. It will all seem just too daunting. Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, this is exactly what’s happening. You’re seeing all your puzzle pieces at once and declaring, “Yikes, too much!” Yet the answer isn’t to trade this puzzle in for a smaller one. After all, these pieces exist because you put them there.

These are the things that you have chosen to take on, the things you know you want to achieve or accomplish (though it is possible that a few of the pieces have fallen into your box from someone else’s, in which case  you are encouraged to discard these anomalies that aren’t part of your “bigger picture”.) That said, once you know that all your pieces are of your own choosing, understand that the puzzle in front of you definitely isn’t “too much”. Like any jigsaw puzzle, yours is, indeed, solvable. All it really takes is for you to focus on each piece individually, then exercise the patience to put them together step-by-step (rather than in one fell swoop). This emphasis on focus makes for a nice segue into…

Metaphor 2.

This is the one I use in counseling sessions. Whenever a client tells me they’re feeling overwhelmed, I suggest that it’s because they are seeing things through a wide-angle lens. This lens takes everything in simultaneously, the whole panorama. While this has its uses sometimes, it’s not great for getting down to the nitty-gritty of getting stuff done. In reality, you can only work on one thing at a time (simple multi-tasking aside). As long as you’re viewing everything, usually little gets accomplished. This is when you’re likely to find yourself in oh-my-gosh-it’s-all-too-much-for-me mode, and just shut down completely, feeling overwhelmed.


Similar to the jigsaw puzzle, the key is to hone your focus. Exchange your wide-angle lens for a telephoto one, then zoom in! No matter what you are feeling overwhelmed about, zooming in is always the solution. If you zoom in far enough, focusing in on any one thing in particular, then all the other stuff that clutters your vision recedes out of view. Now what you see in front of you seems very much accomplishable, because it is! Once your perspective is focused in this intentional way, your feelings of being overwhelmed will vanish, not because you don’t have a lot you want to achieve, but because you will be focused exclusively on completing one of these things right now.

So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that there is something you can easily do about this. You can zoom in. If you want to write a book or dissertation, for instance, you can zoom into the title of it, the design of the cover, the table of contents, or just the first paragraph (or first word of the first paragraph). If you want to save enough money to afford a vacation in Hawaii, aim to put aside the first fifty bucks (or fifty cents). If you want to quit an addiction, focus on abstaining for the next 10 minutes. Planning a wedding? Just make a list of the possible venues.

Whatever you think is overwhelming you, narrow your perspective. If you still feel overwhelmed regardless, zoom in even more. When you do this, what you’ll eventually see in front of you is the thing you can achieve. And, poof,  just like that, you’ll no longer feel overwhelmed. You’ll just go ahead and start getting to work. Sound too easy? Try it out and see for yourself! The thousand-mile journey, you will find, is no more impossible than taking a single (not so overwhelming) footstep.