What a spiritual director and an MBA taught me about being overwhelmed

October 19, 2011 | 36 comments

I have a personality type that leads me to feel overwhelmed a lot. I’m ambitious but lazy; I have a latent perfectionist streak that comes out at unexpected times; I’m an Olympian procrastinator; and I’m so non-confrontational that I often find myself saying “Yes, I’d love to help with that” when what I should be saying is, “I CANNOT EVEN FIND TIME TO BRUSH MY HAIR RIGHT NOW, LET ALONE SIGN UP FOR ONE MORE FREAKING THING.”

Because God looks out for people like me, I’ve had some very wise counsel in this department over the years. For one thing, my husband is an MBA with a gift for managing difficult situations. Earlier in his career he wanted to be a turnaround CEO (an executive that takes failing companies and makes them profitable), so he gained a lot of experience wading into hot messes and getting things under control. Then there was my great spiritual director, who never failed to help me shift my view of any situation to see it through the eyes of Christ. Thanks to the two of them, I can usually dig myself out of overwhelming situations before I reach the meltdown zone.

I’ve gained a great perspective on how to parse through complicated situations, the details of which I once wrote up here. But I realized recently (when I found myself in over my head yet again) that the most important addition to my life toolkit is what I think of as the Burnout Emergency Gas Mask. If you were in a room that was filling with toxic gas, the first thing you’d do is put on a gas mask. You’d do it immediately, without any further analysis, to preserve your health and give you some breathing room (literally) so that you could calmly evaluate the situation and make prudent decisions about what to do next. Through my husband and my spiritual director, I’ve learned a set of steps to take when I begin feeling overwhelmed that function the same way: If I do them immediately, without any further analysis, the process gives me the breathing room to collect my thoughts so that I can make prudent decisions about how to remedy the situation.

Since we’re approaching prime burnout season with the Fall in full swing and the holidays just around the corner, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned:

The 4-Step Burnout Gas Mask

1. Get your physical environment in order

I find it to be critical to do this step first. I used to think that a messy environment didn’t bother me at all, but I’ve come to believe that living in chaos is objectively bad for the spiritual life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it goes a long way toward bringing me peace simply to get my house in order. I don’t mean achieving Martha Stewart levels of perfection, but just clearing out obvious piles of clutter and wiping off messy surfaces to get things looking basically orderly. (And yes, I turn to Fly Lady when I need inspiration in this department.) In situations where the whole house seems to be out of control and it makes me even more stressed to imagine dealing with all of this, I focus only on the kitchen and the bedroom: Waking up to a tidy room and making breakfast in a clean kitchen invariably gets the next day off to a much better start, no matter what else is going wrong.

2. Get some sleep

One of my husband’s biggest mantras is, “Don’t think about your problems when you’re tired.” I need to have this tattooed on my hand so I never forget it. As I’ve said before, I’ve been known to reason my way into believing that the entire universe is falling apart at the seams when I’m tired, only to find that I have a completely different perspective after a good night of sleep. Especially if you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long period of time, pull every single string available to you to make this happen. Even one solid night of catchup sleep can give you an explosion of energy.

3. Pray — preferably outside of the house

We should, of course, pray without ceasing. I know that when I’m overwhelmed, I toss up all sorts of scatter-brained prayers asking God for assistance (and, okay, making sure that he is aware of JUST HOW TERRIBLE everything is that I’m dealing with). However, in order to truly “put on the mind of Christ, ” I need to shut the door on everything else that’s going on in my life, and give the Lord my full attention. In particular, I find it to be critical that I actually follow the A.C.T.S. model of prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, then Supplication); otherwise I tend to blather on and on about what I want God to help me with as if he’s my personal assistant, rather than listening for what he may be trying to tell me.

Also, it doesn’t work well if I try to do this at home. When I feel like I’m surrounded by chaos, it’s super helpful to pray outside of the house at least once, either in our church or at the Adoration chapel. If I try to do one of these “gas mask” prayer sessions at home, my prayers tend to go something like, “Lord, I praise you for your...laundry! Who knocked over that basket of laundry that I just spent an hour folding?!?!

4. Talk through it

After I’ve gotten my house (or at least my bedroom and kitchen) in order, gotten a good night’s sleep, and spent some time in focused prayer, the final thing I need to do in order to set a path forward is to talk through everything with my husband or a close friend. I note from much experience that it is important to make this the last step, otherwise I tend to initiate the conversations with proclamations about how horrible everything is, then ramble for a while with an incoherent series of aimless, self-pitying statements. And, like with prayer, it’s also important to carve out time for this conversation so that both of us are calm, and so we’re not interrupted a bunch of times. (In other words: When I catch my husband at work when he’s late for a client meeting and I’m shouting over the sounds of five screaming kids, it tends not to be a very fruitful discussion.) But when we actually do have time to have a positive, focused discussion, it can work wonders for helping me test what I’ve discerned in prayer, think through new possibilities, and come up with a clear plan to bring peace back into my life.


So those are my four “gas mask” steps that I take as soon as I catch the first whiff of burnout in my life. What are your tips for when you’re feeling overwhelmed?


  1. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    This one’s not always available, but I like untangling headphone cords, shoelaces etc. It’s nice to have achieved something small immediately, plus as a visual person, the puzzle of undoing knots is fun. Luckily for me, my boyfriend treats his headphones terribly, so they always need fixing.

  2. Vicki

    I completely agree with cleaning up something – even if it’s not the whole house; it really does make me feel like I’ve “cleaned out” a bit of the clutter in my mind.

    I also find doing a “brain dump” onto a piece of paper with pen in hand is mighty helpful, most especially while I’m in bed before trying to fall to sleep. It’s helpful when I’m not overwhelmed to do it, but even moreso when I am. All I do is just list out write like task notes as many thoughts that I can come up with. Most of the time my hand isn’t fast enough to keep up with the thoughts, but once I hit near the bottom of the page, I really do feel “lighter” both in my emotional state & the weight of the thoughts in my head.

  3. Roselady

    Wow, very impressive that you can put your husband right up there with your spiritual director for helping you deal with a tricky situation. Thanks for sharing. Enjoyed reading your perspective. Only with 5 kids, how do you even get out of the house to get to Adoration!

  4. Joanna

    I would add one pre-step – eat something. I cannot count all the times I’ve blown up at someone or sobbed that my life is out of control when I’m simply hungry.

    • Marie

      So TRUE!

      • Kathy

        Don’t forget to drink a nice, cool 8-ounce glass of water. Do it one swallow at a time, rather than gulping it down.

  5. Catholic Bibliophagist

    Being able to do something creative usually helps my emotional state a good deal. I was finally able to clean out my putative sewing room so that I can actually use it to sew in. Just being able to sit down and sew a single quilt block is both refreshing and therapeutic. (And it’s heavenly having a place where an ongoing project can be left out and accessible and you can just close the door behind you when you leave, knowing that your work will remain undisturbed until you come back.)

    Personally, I find your post to be very timely. I had already made unfocused attempts at steps one, two, and three. I think your post will help me sharpen my approach. But number four is going to be difficult — one of the disadvantages of being a widow is that one no longer has a built-in confidant.

  6. Leila

    I have nothing to add, only a big THANK YOU and now I am going to clean up a room in my house.

  7. Susan

    I like to make a to-do list.

    • Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life

      I agree! Often when I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s because I’m trying to hold everything I need to do in my head, and every time something pops up that I forgot about for a minute, I start feeling like I’ve lost control.

      Writing it all down almost always makes me realize that there are fewer things that need to get done than I thought there were when I was trying to hold them in my head.

      • Susan


      • 'Becca

        I agree, a list often shows you that there are fewer things than you thought. My most startling example of this was when my partner was freaking out about how “everything is wrong” and in particular blaming me for aggravating him; somehow, I found the grace to say, “Let’s make a list of all the things I am doing wrong.” As he listed them, not only did he quickly run out of items, but he began reconsidering and asking me to scratch off some of them as he realized that their wrongness really lay in his interpretation, not in my actions. Whew!

  8. Jenn

    Thanks for this list–it’s fantastic!

    I find some sort of physical exercise also helps when I’m stressed. Even if I feel tired and beat, getting out for a jog or a walk helps to clear my mind.

    (This is my first comment … I think … but I’ve been following for some time now. I enjoy your writing–thanks for sharing!)

  9. Jamie

    Ah. I really needed someone to just lay that out for me right now. Thanks!

    Another tip I’d like to submit is to not beat yourself up for doing steps 1,2, & 3, and to also not clean and sleep SO much that you really are just procrastinating. (I don’t know if other people have that problem, but I definitely do.)

    Some days—like yesterday, for instance—I just really need a nap, or I need to do something menial and thoughtless like the dishes so that I’m less overwhelmed. But then I feel bad because I feel like I’m procrastinating doing what is “really” important. And so I’m not only overwhelmed, but I’m mad at myself for procrastinating, so I just do even less. Makes perfect sense, right???? So knowing myself, and being able to stop myself from spending too much time on the gas mask to leave time to start hacking away at the to-do list is really helpful for me.

    • 'Becca

      Yes, Jamie, I have both of those problems!

      Just last night, my stomach was mildly upset and I just felt SO COLD that I wound up in bed quite early, thinking I would just warm up for a little while and then get up and do the laundry. I woke briefly at 1:00 and allowed myself to go back to sleep until my alarm went off. My stomach feels better, my sense of temperature is normal, and in general I feel physically good now…but I am struggling not to worry “What about the laundry?” (I am employed outside the home, so there’s no way I can do it until evening) and not to feel guilty about the “more productive” ways I could have used that time. I tend to see sleep as a waste of time.

      And then, with tasks like cleaning or washing dishes that I do see as productive, sometimes I’ll spend way too much time getting the task done perfectly and slowly, rather than leave myself time to do something I know I should do that I am fearing for some reason.

  10. ELM @ A Family Treehouse

    I am sitting here with my mouth open a wee bit… I start reading and think, how did you hack into my brain!?!! I appreciate your list… I have gotten to #1 and #3 and even #4 a bit… I need to learn to do #2 better. How to train self to go to bed early enough to get up before the rest of the family and feel rested?!?!! Of course, I need to work on all of these things more, though! Thanks for the reminder!! 🙂

  11. Andrea C

    Wow, this is so helpful! Thanks so much.

  12. Becky

    I have no tips, but just wanted to say that this post came right in time! I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed and exhausted….I especially agree with the sleep thing. Everything looks better if you’re well-rested. (If that’s possible.) I’m glad that other people get over-whelmed and stressed, sometimes I wonder if it’s just me! Everyone else seems to be so cool and collected all the time…

  13. Alissa @ Episcotheque

    I really needed this today — THANK YOU. Even as a student with no family to care for, I fall into the same trap/cycle, and need to hear the same advice.

  14. Eva

    What, you’re telling me that my ‘go to’ position of yelling at someone, eathing chocolate and then letting the kids watch television aren’t the best ways to deal with being overwhelmed??? Time to take stock, then!
    Seriously thoug, much of my stress comes from feeling that the house is too messy. So, I’m getting a cleaner. I can stress myself out by thinking ‘no, I should be able to do it all myself’ and NOT do it and then hate the mess…..or I could pay someone to do it 2 hours a week Best. Decision. Ever.

  15. Carly

    I too would add eating something (preferably healthy) and journaling/writing stuff down. In fact, I rarely “sit and pray” but rather write out my prayers. This keeps me focused and prevents my mind from wandering. I do spend time listening, but first I have to write everything down; from intentions for others to whatever is stressing me at the moment. Without writing it down first, I can’t listen and reflect for the thoughts running around in my head “get in the way”.

    The number one thing for me when I’m feeling overwhelmed is also cleaning. Again, not obsessively, but the clutter definitely needs to go.

    Great post!

  16. syd

    I ditto the “eat something”, and I would like to add taking a walk. I love being outside, but I somehow find myself always inside. Getting some fresh air helps let off steam and clear my head (sort of goes with your praying out of the house thing).

    Along with the clean something — identifying and cleaning your “trigger” places — those places that drive you crazy with their messiness (mine is the kitchen counter where everyone throws their books, mail, etc. willy-nilly). While everything else might be messy, seeing that clear space (the first thing I see when I walk in the door or down the stairs) makes me immediately feel less stressed.

    Oh, and wash your hair and the floor. 🙂

  17. Michael

    Great list! I would add that I re-evaluate what needs to get done and how. Some things can be done a different way or be delegated to other people.

  18. pharmgirl

    I agree with the person who said eat something – the world is a much more frustrating place when you’re hungry! I find sometimes when I get overwhelmed at work, it helps to step back and ask myself, “Exactly why am I overwhelmed?” and then address whatever’s the most urgent stressor.

  19. Jennifer

    Just wanted to say thank you so much for writing this – I’ve been needing a list such as this to keep me from melt down too. Also, the part where you were describing your personality – it could soooooooo be a description of me. No wonder I’m able to relate to your posts so well!

  20. JaredThaddeus

    1. Procrastination sucks. It is delay, then stress for delaying which leads to more delay.
    2. Physical exercise has helped me.

  21. Erin

    Jen these are all very good! I especially like the clean up tip. I find if I clean/clear the horizontal surfaces in my house, it does wonders for me. One commenter said eat something, which is good too. And I love your husband’s mantra. I completely see things different past my bedtime. The way I describe it is the world turns black. I get stressed out way easier, and cry way easier.

    I tend to stress myself out with the things I want to get done, but don’t need to get done right now. Making a list helps me in three ways. First, I don’t get blind sided going to bed with “Oh no! I wanted to get the furniture posted to Craigslist today, and we didn’t even take the pictures!” Which causes me to rack my brain for everything else I forgot. Stressful and self-depricating. Two, it helps me prioritize and decide which thing to move to another day, which makes me feel way more in control than running out of time or energy. And three, I can visually see progress. If I see progress it is much harder to be hard on myself. Which makes the stress the main thing I am fighting, not myself.

  22. elizabethe

    Jen, we are like secret twins or something. Last week I had a renewed focus on A.C.T.S. in prayer. I could have written this entire post.

    Anyhoo. I totally agree with this list. I would add two things — one is, as someone mentioned above — have lunch.

    The thing I find most helpful though is to make a little mini-schedule for the stress time on a brand new fresh sheet of paper with lots of space for each item — I also put in the regular things I have to do (kids karate class, make dinner, etc.) Consider this a diagnostic tool. Is there a real time management crisis? Or something else?

    Don’t try to do this in your regular, overcrowded organizer, you need the fresh clean space with plenty of visual room for each activity to see that, yes, indeed, everything will fit.

    Then I post that on my fridge or keep it out on my desk and check things off at the end of the day. I’ll often find that I have vastly underestimated just how much time I have to complete everything and there’s not actually a crisis at all.

    Sometimes, I discover that I have invented a bunch of stress because one or two items are making me really nervous and I don’t want to do them. Usually that things is “I REALLY don’t want to make that phone call and talk to that person.” The phone call will take 5 minutes, but the mental anguish about the phone call makes it seem like it will take much longer.

    • Rosie

      Ha, I love the “brand new fresh sheet of paper”! I always tend to make little notes and to-do lists on scraps of other things, so I won’t “waste paper,” (come on, like it’s so expensive?) and that just adds to the clutter and of course I can’t find the notes when I need them. All these comments and suggestions are great, plus yours Jen! Thank you!

      • 'Becca

        I save sheets of unwanted 8-1/2″x11″ paper that are blank on one side for exactly this reason: I hate wasting stuff, but I work much better with full sheets of paper. Just choose a location for your paper pile and put into it every junkmail letter, school flyer, etc. that is blank on one side.

        My six-year-old uses this type of paper for drawing, too, and it completely frees me from any urge to criticize him for “wasting” as he is in fact teaching himself about art and practicing his writing skills!

    • Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life

      I know exactly what you mean about stress that is disproportionate to the actual activity. Writing down everything I have to do is amazing because it forces me to see that I don’t actually have THAT much to do, I’m just stressing out about one or two of the things I have to do.

  23. Gina

    Overwhelmed, ambitious, lazy, perfectionist, procrastinator . . . were we separated at birth???

  24. Autumn

    Amazing! I just took on a part-time music director position at my parish (in addition to my regular full-time job) and was thinking just this morning that I could use a little outside perspective on my now very busy life. This was just what I needed. I think I’ll print out the list and tack it up in my new office!

    Thanks for all you do.

  25. Ursula Trujillo

    This keeps me focused and prevents my mind from wandering. I think I’ll print out the list and tack it up in my new office! Makes perfect sense, right???? Do it one swallow at a time, rather than gulping it down.

  26. MaryP

    It sounds like we are a personality match! Thanks for posting, I spent yesterday telling myself I was going to enjoy Christmas with the baby so much more if I would just get my butt in gear and clean the house. Made it half way there.

  27. Melissa

    Glad I’m not the only one. A FB share of your post came just in time. I’m having a bad day and this was an answer to my prayer for a plan.
    1 is like an OCD thing with me. If the guide is a mess, I can’t focus. It’s okay right now, but the piles that remain I dread. I’m also a to-do list addict.
    2 is harder being pregnant with baby #6. Sleep isn’t as restful add it could be. Hormones are all over the place, so I am trying to not make rash decisions on a cluttered, emotional mind. Eating right dis fall in this step, which has helped my family much.
    3 is tough with kids at home 24/7. But I know it would help to get to adoration. That’s the change I’m being called to.
    4 is getting harder. My husband knows I deal with depression and am on overwhelm, but he’s not a take charge, make decisions kind of guy. Leaving me with that pressure always, for everything. A therapist told me I needed someone I could confide in, someone who knew my situation and ready to be on call. That’s hard to come by.

    Thanks again. I hope I can move forward from today and add those extra steps.

Connect With Me On Social Media or Explore My Site



The "THIS IS JEN" podcast is on Facebook & all podcast apps


- Subscribe on iTunes or Google Play (audio)

- Get weekly bonus episodes on Patreon

- Sign up for my email list to be the first
to know about new tour dates