Easily Overwhelmed

Illustration by Leah Goren for TIME

I am easily overwhelmed by nature. Not like, being in nature overwhelms me – quite the opposite actually – but like, it is in my nature and comes naturally to me to be easily overwhelmed. Especially in situations where there is a lot of noise and people in a small space. I think it runs in the family, this tendency toward social anxiety. But I manage it, you know? I have more or less forced myself into overwhelming situations (like teaching preschool English in a developing country, por ejemplo) and then forced myself to deal. It’s an empowering, terrible, uncomfortable, beautiful thing, this self-inflicted growth.

Just in case you’re curious, when it comes to those kinds of too-many-people and too-much-noise in too-small-a-space scenarios, this is how I force myself to deal with it:

  1. I leave. I remove myself from the situation in a calm way. I have seen many of my friends and family take a break when they need it and this practice is LIFE GIVING and LIFE PRESERVING. If you need to remove yourself from a situation, do it!
  2. I breathe deeply and count backwards from 5. Remember when Kimmy Schmidt said that she could handle anything for 10 seconds? Well I’m an underachiever – I shoot for 5 seconds at a time. I have been amazed at the transforming power of this slow countdown in my life.
  3. If the slow countdown doesn’t make me feel more centered and calm, I pick a mantra and repeat it in my head. Some of my favorites are, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” and, “God is big, God is good, God is sovereign.” I also pull a Katniss and Peeta and repeat things I know to be true when I am feeling overwhelming feelings of failure. “You are a good teacher. You are a good friend. You are loved.” Things like that.

Two weekends ago I went on a Young Life Leadership Retreat. It was great. During a small group time I shared that one of the things I am working on in my life is becoming a more calm and peaceful person. The three people in my small group were kind of surprised. “But you’re so chill!” one of them said. Isn’t it funny how our outsides can be so different from our insides? And how who we are outside of our homes can be so different from who we are inside of our homes?

Fortunately for everyone I live alone, so it’s only my animals who get to hear me scream and cry in frustration over the littlest, tiniest, smallest things. It’s just, things pile up so quickly and then I get overwhelmed and then I cry. Like when I spill my drink (happens ALL THE TIME) and on the way to getting a mop to clean it up I step on a thorn or in dog pee and so then I have to address that first and on my way to do I stub my toe and then the power goes out. Por ejemplo. My natural reaction is to scream and cry. (Yes, like a toddler.)

BUT YOU GUYS. I am growing! I am capable of growth and change and being better! (Like growing and changing from saying, “You guys,” which is not super gender inclusive but apparently a really ingrained habit that is proving v hard to break.) Last night I filled up my water bottle, set it on the coffee table, and then before I even had a chance to take a drink I knocked it over and spilled it all. And I just shrugged it off!

Yesterday one of my students dumped a big box full of colored pencils and I said, “That’s okay! We’ll just clean it up.” AND REALLY MEANT IT.

I started writing this blog post because lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of my responsibilities and my to do list that never shrinks, but the post has kind of gotten away with me. Oh well. This season in my life as a writer is very rambling. I’m embracing it.

So we started school this week. I wrote about that the other day. It’s been great! Wonderful. Awesome. A gift from God, this new school year is. BUT ALSO we had work days on Monday and Tuesday and then also parent meetings on Monday and Tuesday in the evening and then the first day of school was Wednesday. And then also I still do 30 minutes to an hour’s worth of work for the hostel every day and the foster dog and dog-sitting dog keep getting out of this insanely-fenced up yard and then also I have to do lesson plans and more lesson plans and other lesson plans while also finding time to write 1,000 words about acne because side job.

I’ve still got a foot in two worlds – the full time elementary school teacher world and the work from home freelance writer/translator world, which basically means I get to live TWO of my dreams, but also work TWICE as much as perhaps a person should.

All of that is true, but it’s also true that this week I have HARDLY felt stressed and overwhelmed. Like maybe just a tiny bit of stressed and overwhelmed that only lasts for a minute before I take a deep breath and count back from 5 and then do one thing at a time. That would be step number 4 on my how to deal with feeling overwhelmed list. Do one thing at a time.

Looking at a list of all the things I needed to get done this WEEK would have definitely sent me spiraling down the overwhelmed, stressed, rabbit hole into screams of frustration and tears. But that never happened! I haven’t cried once this week! Because anytime I have started to get overwhelmed, I have shortened my to do list down to a minimum of three things. Yesterday my three things were actually four things and they were – get paid by the coffee factory, pay internet bill, do laundry, write lesson plans. I accomplished the first three like a champion, but was too tired to focus on my lesson plans sufficiently to finish them, so I went to bed instead and didn’t beat myself up about it at all.

I looked at my to do list for today this afternoon and said, “AH!” It had ten things on it! Which was overwhelming. So I looked at my list and asked, “What is the bare minimum I can do today to have a successful tomorrow?” Fortunately the answer was, “Write lesson plans for tomorrow’s English class.” Just one thing! I can totally do just one thing! Of course right now I’m writing this terribly crafted blog post instead of doing that one thing but my whole point of all of this rambling is…..

Sometimes it’s okay to do the bare minimum when that’s what you need to live in peace. 

Remove yourself from your situation if you need to and are able. Breathe deeply. Count backwards from five. Surround yourself (your head, your heart, your soul, your physical space) with good truths that you know to be true, even if you’re struggling to believe. Then just do one darn thing at a dang time.



Oh – I just realized/remembered that I just wrote about being overwhelmed last week! The good news is, I’m feeling less overwhelmed than I was then, and definitely happier. God is great, God is faithful!