Fighting Anxiety – How to Cope When Feeling Overwhelmed

Feeling anxious and overwhelmed happens to everyone.

It rarely happens for me, for which I'm thankful, but it's common around the end of the year.  It happened for me just before the holidays.

For me, it manifests in several different ways.

I sleep a little longer than normal in the mornings.

I don’t feel motivated to work, at least on the thing I know I should.

In other words, distractions become more appealing and I procrastinate more.

It usually corresponds with feeling lost or confused, and questioning past decisions and my work.

Often it's feeling like I'm behind my peers and that I haven’t specialized enough yet.  That I should have picked one thing I wanted to pursue for my life already, because now I’m “behind”.

Thinking about questions like:

  • Am I working on the right thing?
  • Did I make the right career choice?
  • Have I made the right job choices?
  • Am I learning as fast as I could be?
  • Could I be learning quicker somewhere else?
  • Am I happy with what I’m working on now?

Feeling overwhelmed isn’t common for me, and this article will serve as my guide when it happens in future.

I hope it will help some of you too.

Three Principles to Combat Feeling Overwhelmed

There are a few general principles that I often forget when I find myself feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

These are particularly relevant to work, career and “success” (however you define it).

  1. What you’re going through isn’t that bad.
  2. Your work is not the only thing that defines you.
  3. Other people have gone through what you're experiencing; you're not alone.

Now, these are nice things to keep in mind, but simply reminding yourself of them isn’t usually enough to help.

The Three Principles in Detail

Here are the strategies I use to actually internalize them.

1. It’s Not That Bad

Writing things down immediately improves everything.

This is related to the idea of Fear Setting, which I learned about from Tim Ferriss.

Simply write down what you’re afraid of, followed by all the worst-case scenarios.  

Example: "I'm afraid of losing my job, and the worst case if that happens is I have to move home with my parents and pay the rest of my lease."

Often, what you realize is the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as you imagined. This alone usually helps things.

If you want to go further, you can chart out how you would react or solve each scenario.

Generally, the structure I follow is always something like:

  1. Write down what you are afraid of/anxious about.
  2. Ex: things you hate about your job.
  3. Write down what you think would improve these things.
  4. Ex: the things that would improve your current satisfaction with your job, or your ideal job).
  5. Write down all the things you are grateful for, happy about related to those points of anxiety.
  6. Ex: I’m grateful for X about my job.

Some other questions I think about during this process (which I write down too):

  • Why did I choose this path in the first place?
  • Do I still believe that reason is valid?
  • Is there a higher purpose behind this which I’ve forgotten?
  • Why am I feeling this way right now?
  • Or, phrased differently, how does the timing relate to how I’m feeling?
  • Ex: I'm tired, I just saw my successful friend, it's the end of the year, etc.

2. Your Work Isn’t Who You Are

This is something I particularly have to remind myself given my personality.

Many ambitious people often define themselves by their profession or education, which in reality is only part of who they are.

You may define yourself by another factor, but the key to this section is knowing who you are.

There are many tools and personality tests, but at the very least, I would suggest you pay for an Enneagram test.  Carefully read the results and take notes.

Note: I first read about this test in Tools of Titans.

What I like about this test is that in addition to describing your personality, it will tell you how you react to stress and help you respond.  It will also remind you of the positive aspects of your personality.

3. Others Have Gone Through What You're Experiencing; You're Not Alone

When stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, we feel alone. I tend to isolate myself when stressed, and it’s not uncommon.

The reality of social media is we often see only the highlights in others’ lives.  This can amplify the feelings of inadequacy or being alone.

To break from this, we must remind ourselves that many others have been in the same, or worse, situations before.  Many are experiencing them now.

For me, there are several ways to truly remind myself of this.

  1. Talk to a friend/peer/mentor in a similar situation.
  2. Read about someone going through something similar.
  3. Listen to someone talk about something similar.

The first is an attractive option, but the logistics can be difficult.

I have entrepreneur friends I rely on for advice and mentorship, but they are busy and have their own worries.

I don’t hesitate to reach out via text or email when I really need it, but it's often difficult to get what you need via those mediums.

I would use friends and mentors for what I call “maintenance” – talking about challenges, worries, anxieties before they become something larger.

Meetups and events are great for this, particularly ones like Entrepreneurs Anonymous, for example.  

You can find gatherings near you on Meetup.

The second option - reading a book - is better in the short term, because it’s immediately accessible. You can build a literal library of books that are most helpful to you in particular.

These are some of the most impactful books for me:

Specifically for entrepreneurs:

But reading is time-consuming and requires your full concentration.

You can’t do anything else while reading, which is sometimes a good thing, but there’s a better option.

The third option - my favourite - is audio.

You have the same options as reading; most books are now available as audiobooks (I use Audible for these).

Podcasts are also an option when consuming audio.

I find the conversational nature of podcasts often makes the lessons a little more human than books.

The benefit of audio is you can consume while doing other things.

In particular I’d recommend either working out or walking, ideally somewhere calming.

One of Tony Robbin’s mantras is to change the state of your mind, you need to change the state of your body.

It doesn’t have to be a drastic change, although sometimes a killer workout is exactly what is needed.

Even something as simple as going for a long walk will do wonders for how your body feels, and therefore how you feel.

You can double up on the benefits by consuming a great book or podcast on the way.

I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite books for reminding myself I’m not alone above, and here are a couple of my favourite podcasts for that purpose:

This Too Shall Pass

So, if you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, try and remember the following:

  1. What you’re going through isn’t that bad.
  2. Your work is not the only thing that defines you.
  3. Other people have gone through this; you're not alone.

To accomplish the above, do the following things:

  1. Write down anxieties and worst-case scenarios.
  2. Know your personality, and re-read those notes.
  3. Listen to a podcast or book while walking.

Everyone feels overwhelmed and anxious at some point. Know it will pass, you are not alone, and things will get better.

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