Have you ever been multi-tasking on your computer when you make that fateful decision to open just one more program or browser tab? Maybe you just wanted to check the weather or some stock prices. Perhaps you were tricked into opening one of those annoying “slide show style” entertainment links on Facebook…

If you’re like me, you have been there…and it can really sneak up on you. Your computer suddenly goes into freeze mode. Pages stop responding. That annoying thinking icon shows up (which really seems to be a sign that your computer has stopped thinking altogether), and ultimately you start wonder when you last saved the word document that you had open…

It turns out that the same thing can happen to us from stress. When we have one too many mental browser tabs open, our capacity to manage everything can become overwhelmed. We might find ourselves in the equivalent of “freeze mode,” worrying about everything at once, but unable to do much about anything. It can be hard to know what to do when this happens…and as I said, it sneaks up on you.

Healthy Stress Versus Chronic Stress

Stress is a normal, and even necessary, part of human life. A certain amount of stress can be a useful motivator, as we often worry about completing things that need to be addressed. It can also be a useful signal that something is wrong in some area of our life. Even financial stress can fulfill a beneficial role, for many people, as it encourages us to show up to our jobs.

So why do we complain about, or worse yet, worry about stress? It is because chronic, unrelenting stress can have a way of eating away at our sense of security. We loose track of our sense that we can manage everything that we need to.

Chronic stress can have tremendous health consequences, in both the physical and mental realms. Mental overwhelm is just one of the signs that you could be suffering from chronic stress. And it can also be a needed signal that we need to take a look at our lives and make some changes.

So what can you do?

The first thing that needs to happen before you can make use of the situation, is to pull yourself out of mental crisis mode. You need to take steps to reduce stress enough to be able to look at deeper changes.

Reconnect With Your Body – Though our bodies are one of the areas where stress can manifest (think tension headaches, muscle tightness, IBS, etc.), the body can also be a helpful pathway out of mental overwhelm.

Do a body scan. Notice if there are any areas where you are experiencing tension or stress. Are your muscles tight? Do you have butterflies in your stomach? A headache? Take a moment to just notice the sensations going on in your body.

Taking a moment to focus on breathing in a deep intentional way can do a lot to take you out of a worry loop. Take a few minutes to just focus on your breathing. Do you notice any changes in the body?

Now you can start to analyze your situation in a more connected way.

Figure Out What Your Specific Worries Are – When we are in a state of cognitive overwhelm, it is sometimes hard to be in touch with our specific worries in an organized way.

It can often be helpful to write out the things that you are consciously stressed about. Do Not worry about solving problems during this stage. The goal right now is to identify what you are worrying about. Whether big or small, put it on the list.

When you have the list fully completed, take a look and see if there is anything that you can easily address right now to take it off of your plate.

Break Things Down into Smaller Pieces and Prioritize – It can be daunting to address the many pressures of life, particularly when there is a Big Something that we are worried about. When we look ahead to a large goal or project, it can be hard to imagine that we have enough time, energy, etc. to complete it.

The good news is that you don’t need to accomplish everything at once. There is truth to the saying that “you can only climb a mountain one step at a time.”

Prioritize those parts of a larger goal that can be dealt with now. Checking something off your list will help to reinforce a sense that “You can do it.” Sometimes just having an organized action plan in place can reduce anxiety to the point that you can address things more effectively.

Check in with your emotions – it can be tempting to focus only on a To Do list, while ignoring nagging emotional issues that are contributing to your stress load. This is especially true when we feel like there isn’t a clear cut solution to a problem, or when we have mixed feelings about something.

Consider the difficult feelings that might arise if you are torn about ending a romantic relationship. You might simultaneously feel that it is time to move on, while thinking that maybe you should give things another shot. Suppressing conflicting feelings can create a great deal of unconscious stress.

Sometimes we need to acknowledge our emotional ambivalence to decrease the power that it has over us.

If you are dealing with an emotional dilemma, talk it out. It can be immensely helpful to talk things over with a supportive friend, family member, or therapist. It’s not uncommon to come to a new insight simply from speaking your problems aloud to someone who is listening in a connected way. At other times, you may need to devote some energy to resolving the issue.

Reflect the Causes of Frequent Overwhelm– After you get past an overwhelm crisis, it can be very tempting to keep moving and never look back. Unfortunately, this prevents us from learning from what happened and doing something to prevent future problems.

It is important to analyze what factors in your life routinely pile on stress. Are there relationships in your life that cause more stress than they reduce? Do you have difficulty saying no, when asked to take on “just one more thing?”

Addressing these patterns is the key to making lasting changes to the cycle of stress in your life. It may take practice, or outside help, but it is a long-term investment in a healthier you.