Stuck with Stress: When Overwhelm Becomes Obsessive

Stressed businessman In a 2013 study from the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults say that managing stress is extremely or very important, but only 35% say they are doing an excellent or very good job at it.

If we all know that it is important to manage stress, why are our coping methods so ineffective? What if there was a better way of restructuring the daily tasks, repetitive thoughts, and endless to-do lists so that we are not obsessively trying to keep up?

The amount of stress most Americans face can be considered overwhelming. In an effort to maintain solid ground at work, we often work longer and harder. Throw in a sprinkling of family issues and dysfunction, poor self-care, and lack of boundaries and our lives quickly feel out of control.

For some people, being busy and stressed is a badge of honor suggesting they are successful and important. For others, it is a repetitive wound that cannot heal. Those who find stress to be overwhelming often get stuck in negative obsessive patterns about it and find it difficult to slow down their ruminating thoughts.

Overwhelm becomes obsessive when:

  1. We wake up and the first thing we do is begin working—monitoring email, social media, and news—and continue until it’s time to sleep.
  2. We cannot figure out how to “handle” all of it.
  3. We cannot figure out how to get through a day without caffeine, sugar, or alcohol.
  4. We can’t sleep because we have an endless loop of daily to-dos that didn’t get done, or need to be done tomorrow.
  5. We wake up and cannot fall back asleep because our minds won’t shut off.
  6. We have a perfectionistic tendency to do it all.
  7. We want a more peaceful, slower life, but aren’t willing to give up something to get it.

If we obsessively think about and try to manage how much we have to do, why not just stop? It’s not that easy. We have learned that American society prides itself on being busy because busy equals successful. We nearly compete for it. Our lives are built around doing and having it all. We add more to our daily lists without subtracting unnecessary items. In addition, most of us don’t know what a healthy boundary looks like. The thought of being less busy makes us anxious. A healthy, balanced life seems like an oddity as well; there are not many role models and representatives to teach us.

Obsessive overwhelm can be calmed with a handful of simple, yet effective, tools. The hard part is implementation and repetition.

First, get out a sheet of paper. Using a pen, draw a line down the middle vertically and a line down the middle horizontally, creating four quadrants. List each of the four quadrants with a header, such as work, children, home, and personal. Now, create mini to-do lists in each quadrant for each category. Maybe your work quadrant has 20 to-dos and your personal quadrant has only one. This exercise immediately shows you what area of your life is more overwhelming and how unbalanced your life may be. Also, keeping your to-dos in one list streamlines the mind clutter of trying to remember it all. Be aware of what areas are creating unbalance and weighing you down.

Second, it’s as simple as saying no. Say no to new tasks that do not provide peace. This is where you will learn boundaries with yourself and others. Doing for others is a wonderful quality, but not when they can do for themselves and it creates overwhelm for you. Say no if they can do it themselves.

Third, do less in a day. If your to-do list looks like a novel, stop the overscheduling overwhelm. Remove all but three items per day from each quadrant. You’ll see how removing items will allow you to get targeted items done more effectively.

Fourth, do one thing at a time. Multitasking creates overwhelm. Schedule your time so that you group items together that are similar. For instance, make phone calls from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Pay bills from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Doing one thing at a time and accomplishing each task creates peace. Do not send email, for example, while on the phone, while waiting for water to boil.

Fifth, be mindful. When you start to feel overwhelmed again, check your list. Are you overscheduled? Examine where you can eliminate or delegate so you can be mindful of your wellness and stress level.


American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America: Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits? Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC, Obsessions and Compulsions / OCD Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Steele

    February 10th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Tell me this- in today’s driven and productive minded society how exactly do you set things up so that you are doing less in the day and not getting reprimanded or even fired for doing just that? I am all for relaxation and time away from work, but I also know the value of having a good job and the things that have to be done to remain gainfully employed. Unfortunately even though most of us know that time away is a good thing for us there are still too many employers who do not exactly share those thoughts.

  • Kaci

    February 11th, 2015 at 3:44 AM

    There does come a time when you have to prioritize a little better, understand the difference between the things that absolutely have to be done right then and the things that can be put off a little further down the list. I don’t think that this is necessarily procrastinating, but it does set you into motion to do the things that are the most important and then work your way down. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  • roman

    February 11th, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    I must try to remember that multitask means overwhelm…
    because for me this is the definite truth!
    For some this is the pinnacle of getting things done
    For me it just adds to my stress to try to do multiple things at one time.

  • Lee

    February 12th, 2015 at 3:40 AM

    This is not me that we are talking about here. Thinking about work is the last thing that I try to do when I leave there every day.

  • Phillip B.

    February 13th, 2015 at 11:13 AM

    how is it that we all know just how important that it is to manage the stress but yet so few of us think that we do a good job at it?


    February 14th, 2015 at 9:15 AM

    Here’s the one I don’t understand:
    those who seem so stressed out all the time and that you really think that they could benefit from your help, but ultimately they don’t want it. What is that? That they think that they are some kind of martyr for taking all of this on when really the one thing that could help them out is just accepting a little bit of assistance from others?

  • Olly

    February 17th, 2015 at 12:24 PM

    You kind of hit the nail on the head talking about those who wear this as if it is some kind of honor. I wonder if they continue to feel that way after years and years of this wearing them down and seeing the physical results that it can do to them?

  • Diana B.

    January 7th, 2017 at 5:31 AM

    I am wondering why we do not give more attention to the huge income inequality in America and how that alone puts one in a sort of constant survival anxiety that can not be simply cured by therapy. The United States leads in the highest number of children living in poverty than all the other industrialized countries of the world!

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