A community church in North Andover, Massachusetts

How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed*

We all feel overwhelmed. I’m shocked how often during my favorite seasons of the year (Christmas and Easter), between my responsibilities and expectations as both a pastor and a husband/father/grandfather, I sigh and just wish that event was “over and done with!” Then I step back and give myself a reality check. I remind myself I love this season, I love being involved, and I need to take a breath. I need to take a moment to pray, and I probably need to enlist some help to make that overwhelmed feeling go away. Reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed also allows us to approach new ideas without immediately wanting to push them away as just one more thing we can’t handle.

I know every human being alive goes through times of feeling overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we become frazzled and that makes it worse. The overwhelmed mind will feel slow, become forgetful (exactly what’s not needed when we’re so busy), confused, and have trouble concentrating or thinking logically. The overstrained brain can also go in a different direction, and we end up having our minds race like hitting the gas pedal on the car while it’s in neutral (it revs like crazy but nothing useful happens), or we lose the ability to problem solve. Sound familiar to anyone? I’m raising my hand, but you can’t see it. As our minds frazzle further, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum (someone who doubt has experienced feeling overwhelmed), observes “When you can’t cope with change, you feel overwhelmed, and you look for a simple solution.” Unfortunately, in a complicated world, that solution is often far from the best. More often it seems good to us because it’s the first fruit we can reach, and it’s not the Fruit of the Spirit.

There are several things we can do to calm our minds and stop feeling overwhelmed. Most of us can’t take a wilderness hike to get close to God as Jesus did on a regular basis (see, even our Messiah, our Savior, had to deal with feeling overwhelmed, just like us). But we can follow the advice from Philippians and pray like Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 says, Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

To banish the feeling that we’re in over our heads, there are some additional strategies we can employ. It starts with the cliché, work smarter, not harder. The first step is to sit back for a minute, yes you can spare that precious minute to clear your mind, and ask, “What is the real culprit (or two) behind making me feel overwhelmed?” What one or two things could be removed from my schedule that would eliminate most of the stress I feel right now? While we can’t eliminate those things, we can finish them if they’re nearly done. Or, if those things feel insurmountably huge, we can break them down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources to complete them, or renegotiate the deadline if possible. You might want to do all those things. Church Committees feeling overwhelmed by a particular task will often create subcommittees filled with people with experience in that particular task and let them carry it out with the Committee’s blessing. Many churches find this a winning strategy.

We also need to be tough with ourselves and set strict boundaries on our time and workload. We have to learn to say no, which many find challenging at best. We may have to box a particular project into specific hours dedicated only to that task, leave the office at a regular time, and say no to specific types of work, those dangerous things known as “other duties as assigned.” Some things we allow ourselves to undertake really aren’t ours to worry about and we need to stop doing that so we can take care of ourselves and reduce that feeling of being overwhelmed.

We need to challenge our sense of perfectionism. Perfectionism can make our jobs harder, adding unnecessary steps along the way, creating a sense we can’t get the job done, which leads to procrastination and psychological distress. Things pile up and that sense of being overwhelmed grows. Sometimes you must let a well-done project go. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Good is good enough in most circumstances.

Also, when there are many things needing attention, don’t allow yourself to think, “I have a thousand things that need to get done today.” That’s not helpful and it isn’t true. How many projects really need attention on this day, currently, right now? How many can be polished off in “good enough” fashion and removed from the plate?

We also need to learn to delegate, which means we need to communicate directly with others enough to know who has the God-given talents to handle particular situations. The recommendation of a third party is never as useful as speaking directly to the person we would like to have help us. If something doesn’t fall under the “highest and best use of my time,” who might do it better? For whom is that project the highest and best use of their time? Who will feel rewarded undertaking this project? Who will grow spiritually and learn more about their God-given talents by taking on this task?

We also need to check our assumptions. We often create little rules for ourselves or have mindsets we have imposed upon ourselves that just make our jobs/lives more challenging than they need to be. Mindsets like this project, this committee, this church can’t function without me. If I mess up, everything falls apart. Most of those worried mindsets aren’t entirely true any more than “I have a thousand things to do today” is true. These pernicious assumptions keep us mired in that feeling we’re overwhelmed and cloud our thinking more effectively than The Shadow ever could. They need to go.

Getting control of the feeling of being overwhelmed clears our minds, allowing us to look at new information with interest and curiosity rather than fear and rejection. It also helps us live the joyful, full, rich lives God wants for us. It lets us savor the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and selfcontrol.

~Pastor Jeff

*Referencing the article “How to Deal with Constantly Feeling Overwhelmed” by Rebecca Zucker from 2019 in the Harvard Business Review.