School is back in session.

For me this means my kids are getting back into their morning routines and my part-time work at a local college is at its busiest point of the year. Our new interns are still being trained and the students are pouring in, requesting mental health counseling. It’s busy.

Breathing Underwater: Overcoming Being Overwhelmed

Personally, I usually feel on top of things. But with so many details swimming in my head, at times my mind just can’t process it all.

How do you catch a breath when you feel like you are slipping deeper and deeper underwater?

The single most common reason college students request mental health counseling is feeling OVERWHELMED.

Think about it this way: I throw you a small ball or two and tell you to juggle. We could call them “getting to class” and “completing assignments.” Easy, right? Now I throw another ball in the mix. Maybe it is a job, or family obligations. You can still manage, huh? But life usually has some complications, so maybe relationship issues, illness, recurrent physical or mental health concerns, finances and/or losses need your attention. Imagine each of them is yet another ball to juggle. If you are at the top of your game, I bet you can manage it all. But what if you have a bad day? And what if several of them get more critical at the same time? (This typically happens during midterms and finals, of course.) If you need to drop a ball, how do you decide which one?

A little bit of stress can be a good thing. It can be energizing, motivating, instigating. When I was in college I wouldn’t start a paper unless I started getting anxious about the deadline coming up. But what about too much stress? Generally, stress is what you feel when the demands on your life exceed your ability to meet those demands. Too much stress, especially chronic stress, has a negative impact on your health and wellness. I’ll let Max explain:

Ever wonder when you’re overwhelmed if maybe school (or whatever you’re attempting) just isn’t for you?

Ancient wisdom cautions: don’t make any major life decisions when you are at a low point. When pressures or stressors pile up, it can be tempting to fantasize about dropping it all and feeling free.

But take a moment to step back and remember what your long-term goals are. How would this decision alter your life, now and in the future?

Want a few easy tips for managing the stress of being overwhelmed?

Take a moment to list out all of the things in your life that are consuming your energy. After you make the list, decide what aspects are non-negotiable (maybe a family member or a job you need). Then see if there is anything that is sucking energy without giving you much back in return. Some examples are toxic friends, bad habits, too much drinking or drugs… What would it be like to put some of those on the back burner? You don’t have to give them up entirely, but perhaps limit the time you spend devoted to them during the semester. Good friends will understand and will wait for you. The internet and your favorite vices won’t go anywhere.

Do you have a planner or calendar? If it’s a paper one, is it so small that you can only cram a few things into the square for each day? No wonder it feels like you have no time! Try purchasing a schedule that has enough space and has time broken into 15 minute intervals throughout the day. Calendars on your phone are great for setting reminders, but there is something helpful about having a tangible, physical schedule book to see at a glance. (Here is a link to an example on Amazon.)

Still have that planner open? Schedule some time for relaxation and self-care. Even if it is just squeezed into one of those 15 minute spots. Personally, I won’t exercise if the time isn’t built into my weekly schedule. Make a list of all of the things you already do to relax and feel better. Add a few things that you haven’t done in a while, but would like to start doing again. (For some more self-care ideas, see this GRAPES checklist.) Next, actually put specific self-care and relaxation activities on your schedule. Spending 15 minutes a day in deep relaxation, such as meditation, can be more restorative than 8 hours of sleep. (Bet you don’t get 8 hours of sleep, huh?)

Speaking of sleep, remember all the basics. I call them the “grandma advice.” You know things like sleeping enough, eating well, getting outside for fresh air and exercise? Our grandmothers were onto something.

Advanced level stress management

Learn or practice mindfulness.

Plan ahead if you think it’s going to be a difficult semester academically and/or personally.

Talk to a therapist to work on your own personalized coping strategies.

Photo by Christopher Cambell via Unsplash.

About the author

Abigail Burd, LCSW San Diego Therapist Specializing in College StudentsAbby is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW 26867) in private practice in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego, California, close to UCSD, the University of San Diego, and Mesa College. She has provided down-to-earth therapy and counseling since 1998, and has specialized in the mental health of college students and graduate students since 2007. Briana is a registered Marriage and Family Therapy Intern (IMF 81364) who also has extensive experience in treating college students. Contact us to inquire about current openings for therapy.