5 Powerful Steps To Manage Stress, Overwhelm, and Burnout With ADHD

When you think about your to-do list, do you feel so stressed that your brain nearly shuts down?

Or has overwhelm kept you spinning in indecision and unable to move forward?

Are you driven by fear as you think about encroaching deadlines and worst-case scenarios?

If so, you may be nearing burnout.

And on episode 107 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we talk about how to navigate it.

Tune in and discover:

  • How and why your body responds to stress.
  • The importance of completing the stress cycle for your body and mind (and how to do it.)
  • A 5 step process to work through stress and overwhelm in order to move forward.

You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover How To… 

  • How and why your body responds to stress.
  • The importance of completing the stress cycle for your body and mind (and how to do it.)
  • A 5 step process to work through stress and overwhelm in order to move forward.

Links From The Podcast

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Episode #107: 5 Powerful Steps To Manage Stress, Overwhelm, And Burnout With ADHD (Transcript)

You’re listening to the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson episode number 107.

Hey everybody! Welcome to episode 107 of the podcast. Thanks – as always – for tuning in today. I am so grateful to have you here. Today I’m going to get right into our episode topic, which is all about feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. And more specifically, how to navigate stress and overwhelm and work through these emotions before slipping into shutdown mode when your executive brain goes completely offline and your toddler brain takes over.

I know a lot of people are working through these emotions right now, and I hope that this is one of those episodes that you can return to whenever you notice the familiar feelings of stress and overwhelm sneaking in and you need a little extra support. Because the reality is this. We all experience stress and overwhelm. It is going to happen. And while we all experience stress and overwhelm a little differently, there are often similar qualities to it.

I know for myself, my brain often feels full. I have so many thoughts racing through my head, and I’m thinking about all of the things that I need to do or haven’t yet done or forgot to do. And I think about all of the unknowns or uncertainties that I’m facing at a particular moment. 

Often my brain starts offering variations on the question of “what if:”  “what if this happens?” “And what if this happens? “What about this one over here – what if that happens?” Kara Lowenthiel, who is an incredible feminist mindset coach calls this the “what-if” parade. As if all the what-ifs come parading through your mind ready to throw you straight into a spiral of uncertainty and overwhelm.

Fight Flight & Freeze

And when this happens, it goes without saying that it doesn’t feel amazing. Our body has usually moved into the stress response cycle. And this means that the brain is on high alert, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline spike and begin coursing through the body, and we generally move into the fight, flight, or freeze response. And this all happens quite quickly when we shift into stress, overwhelm, anxiety, or fear.

So with that in mind, it’s important to note that your body doesn’t only go into fight, flight, or freeze mode and release cortisol and adrenaline in intense situations when are you are in genuine life-threatening danger. 

Though, it did evolve from that. It was that way at one time in our evolution when we had to protect ourselves from predators and the natural elements in order to survive. And of course, there are situations today where we are in dangerous situations. But this is not generally the norm. This is not the regular cause of our stress and overwhelm in most situations on a day-to-day basis.

The norm is feeling stressed when you know you’ll be late as you sit in traffic on your way to work and worry about what your boss will say. Or when you over-committed yourself and you’ve literally gone over your time budget with not enough hours in the day so you spin in indecision not knowing how you’ll fit everything in. It’s the stress and overwhelm that comes from indecision of not knowing what to do next when you’re staring at lots of projects and tasks that are 75% complete and you’re telling yourself they’re all important. It’s the overwhelm of your racing mind as you attempt to keep track of all of the dozens, sometimes 100+ open loops and ideas and tasks and projects circling through your mind as you stay in confusion about what to do next,

These are our modern-day stressors that so many of us deal with on a daily basis. And when we don’t know how to work through the stress and overwhelm. When we don’t know how to manage our mind and allow ourselves to process the stress and complete the stress cycle, that is what often leads to analysis paralysis. That’s what leads to getting stuck. And that’s what ultimately leads to burnout.

And as a side note, if you are interested in learning more about the stress cycle and its connection with burnout, I highly recommend the book Burnout. It is a well-researched, engaging book by Amelia and Emily Nagoski. I’ll be sure to link to it in the shownotes.

So what can we do? If we know we feel stressed or overwhelmed and we want to move forward rather than staying stuck in these emotions, what are the steps involved? 

Gaining Awareness

Well, step one — as it often is — is gaining awareness. We need to be aware that we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. And while this might seem like an unnecessary step, you’d be surprised by how many of us just power through, push the emotions down, and keep plowing forward. Chances are you’ve been one of those people at one time or another. That basically summarizes the majority of my years working in academia.

So check in with yourself. How does the emotion of stress or overwhelm feel in your body? Do you feel tightness in your chest and your shoulders? Do you feel a heaviness or is it fast vibrations running through your limbs? What does that feeling of overwhelm or stress feel like for you? And then check in with yourself and know your tendency. When your body is experiencing stress, do you tend to lean toward fight, flight, or freeze?

And what do those three categories mean?

Well, if you tend toward flight, this often looks like avoidance. So if you have a project due for work, you might make yourself incredibly busy doing dishes, putting away laundry, telling yourself you have to take the kids for ice cream because they asked. You are looking for all the reasons to generally avoid what your brain perceives as the stressor.

If you tend toward freeze, you probably sit and stare at the project spinning. You’re probably thinking to yourself, I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to do. This is too much. This is so overwhelming. And you spin in spin and spin without taking action. Or maybe you shut down entirely and you completely check out. Though I tended toward fight or flee in situations like this, I have been known to literally stare out the window or literally stare at my hair looking for split ends for a very long time because my brain has basically gone offline. My brain has left the building.

And then finally, we have fight mode. And this is when you dig in and try to do all of the things all at once desperate to get it done. So if you have lots of open loops, maybe you are scrambling to do all of the projects and get them all complete but you’re not really making traction on any of them because it’s such a scattered focus. It feels like force. It feels like pressure as you think yourself I must get this done I have to get it all done immediately.

So when you think about these three stress responses, chances are some of them resonate more with you than others. Or maybe you lean toward one or another with certain projects or certain areas of your life. By identifying how you tend to show up in these different situation is the first level of awareness because then you have it on your radar. You know to look out for it.

So if you notice yourself doing everything else but the project on your schedule, you’re probably in avoidance and fleeing from the stressor. If you notice yourself feeling tons of stress and pressure and you’re forcing yourself to do the project or task, you’re probably in fight mode. And if you’re staring at the wall or staring out the window or you’re absent-mindedly scrolling social media and your brain has gone completely off-line. Or if you notice that you’re spinning and spinning and spinning in uncertainty and confusion, you may be in freeze mode.

Complete the Stress Cycle

Now that you know where you’re at, and you’ve pressed pause on the stress and overwhelm that’s has you stuck in some shape or form, it’s now time to begin step two, which is completing the stress cycle. And I encourage you to not skip this step even though it might feel tempting. You may think to yourself you don’t have time or you’ll do it later. You might think it’s not necessary or it’s great for everyone else, but not you. Or maybe the process of checking in with yourself in step one slowed you down enough that you think, “I’m okay now. I can move forward and get the work done.”

If you feel resistance to following step 2, chances are it’s especially important that you make time for it. Because this step all about giving yourself space to fully process the feelings of stress in your body. See, if your body has been running on stress and you’ve reached the point of fight, flight, or freeze, your body still needs to release all of that cortisol and adrenaline that coursed through your body.  And in the book Burnout, the authors call this process “completing the stress cycle.” And it truly is so key because as we’ll talk about in just a moment, it is a very rare situation in our society today that we make space to go through the cycle, which results in leaving those stress hormones in the body.

Now the stress cycle is a three-part process, which our body naturally goes through when we allow it to do so. In the book, the authors discuss this with lots of different examples in order to descibe the three parts of coming into contact with the stressor, the body kicking into the stress response of fight, flight, or freeze, and then completing the stress cycle by allowing the stress hormones to release from your body.

One of the specific examples they give looks back to our ancestors thousands of years ago when people were – indeed – fighting the elements to survive. So let’s say you are out hunting and you’re getting chased by a tiger. Seeing the tiger initiates the stress cycle. Your brain leaps into high alert and protective mode, and the cortisol and adrenaline releases and have you quickly turn and run back to the village where your group of people lives. And you get back to safety and you hug your family and everyone cheers and celebrates that you’re back safely and you flop down in a state of relief.

In this situation, your body went into flight mode.The tiger started chasing you, your brain goes into flight mode and you run away. But it’s not at that moment that we complete the stress cycle. Simply getting away is part two of the three parts. The stress cycle completes in part three once you reach your community, you cheer and celebrate and hug one another and then flop down in relief. That is the third part of the cycle. 

And the problem is that we rarely make time for the third part anymore. Instead, we just do parts one and two. We have these stressors in our lives – whether we’re stuck in traffic or have a fight with our partner or we’re up against a work deadline – and we have thoughts about these circumstances and our body responds. It releases the cortisol and adrenaline, but rather than completing the stress cycle, which we’ll talk about in a minute, we instead basically push them down and let them sit in our body as we move on to the next thing.

How To Complete The Stress Cycle

So that leads us to the question: how do we do this? How do we release the stress and complete the cycle? Probably the most common ways we do this in society today is through exercise. Whether you dance, run, jump up and down, or run up and down the stairs a few times, exercise is a powerful way to release those hormones. And when you do this as part of your regular routine, you help rid your body of that buildup of stress. 

For most of us, our lives are filled with various stressors, but we rarely take the time to stop and process each one. When we choose to make exercise a regular practice, however, we help process and release the stress on a regular basis. We’re completing the stress cycle regularly.

In the example we gave of escaping the threat of the lion, the person completed the stress cycle by hugging and connecting with the people you love and trust. In fact, the authors suggest that a hug in a safe and trusting situation can help your body process emotions as effectively as running a couple of miles, which is pretty remarkable.

Other ways of completing the stress cycle include breathing. I’ve mentioned on the podcast before that I am a big fan of breathwork. I use a process that incorporates the physiological sigh, which is a two-part breath in followed by a longer breath out and it coincides with a meditation. That’s one of my favorite ways to process emotions generally. There are also lots of different breathing patterns out there. You can check the Googles and get tons of suggestions. I know the Calm app also has breathing patterns for you to follow along with, which is awesome.

Laughter is another powerful way to release and complete the stress cycle when it’s that incredibly deep belly laugh where you’re gasping for air because you’re laughing so hard. You can also achieve this through engaging in creativity. Whether you’re making music, painting, sculpting, theater. Anything that encourages creativity and emotion is perfect. 

And finally, crying is another very powerful way to process your emotions and complete the cycle. Chances are, you have all experienced one of those big cries before. You might be feeling incredibly stressed out or very overwhelmed and then you have a really good cry and all of a sudden things feel lighter. You have a big sigh of relief, it seems like a weight was lifted off your shoulders. And even though nothing has really changed, you feel better. Right? Again, you completed the cycle. 

So whether you complete your stress cycle in the moment by breathing or connecting with someone or crying it out or going for a run. Or you have a practice where you exercise regularly or have a regular breathwork practice. Or you do a combination of both, I encourage you to make space for this step. It is so key when it comes to navigating stress, and as Emily and Amelia Nagoski argue prevents us from heading into burnont.

Gather Your Thoughts With A Thought Download

Alright, so once you’ve moved through step one of gaining awareness of your stress levels and step two of completing the stress cycle, then I encourage you to move to step three, which is all about gathering your thoughts. Now that you’ve processed and released the stress, now it’s time to create some clarity in your mind, so get a piece of paper and a pen, and write everything down. Do a giant thought download and empty your brain on paper.

Now I know you have heard me say this time and time again on the podcast. And I know some of you do it and some of you resist it. I promise you, there is a good reason why I suggest doing these thought downloads all the time. Your brain is meant for processing information, not storing information. So when you use your brain as a backup disk and try to store all of that information, the information remains open loops draining your energy and making your brain work much harder than it needs to. So take some time and write everything down.

And if you are a person who thinks, “Sure. That’s great for some people. But I literally don’t have time to do this.” Or alternatively, “when I finally write down everything on my to-do list, I feel even more overwhelmed than when I started.” If either of these scenarios sounds like you, I see you. I hear you. I was you. So I get it.

But do yourself a favor and try this for just one week. And if that seems like too much, try it for three days. Every day, write down all of the things on your mind. The first day will take longer; you’re going to get everything out of your brain and downloading it on paper. And if you haven’t done this for a while, there’s a lot to process. That’s okay.  Likely the in the coming days you will gradually experience less swirling thoughts. So get out all the thoughts, all the tasks, all the things on your mind. I’m telling you, this is so powerful. 

Pick One Project

And then we reach step 4. Step 4 involves choosing one main project from your list and two smaller tasks that you will commit to that day. Or if you’re doing this process in the evening or later in the day, you’re creating a plan for the following day. And as a reminder, a project is anything that involves more than one step, and a task is something that you can complete in one step. To identify one project and two tasks that you will complete no matter what.

So let’s say that one of the things on your list that has you spinning and spinning is your inbox. You have lots of unanswered emails, and you’re thinking yourself I have no idea how I’m ever going to get through all of this. Maybe the project you set for yourself is to answer 5 emails and draft the letter to your team that you want to send out the following Monday. And maybe the two smaller tasks are to walk the dog around the block and call your dentist to confirm your appointment. So we have one project – the emails which we can break into smaller steps and the two single-step tasks. Choose them from your to-do list download and commit to doing them. Give your brain some constraint and direction so it knows exactly what to do and can see that you are making progress.

Everything Is Important

Now if your brain freaks out and thinks, there is so much to do when I look at this list; I have no idea where to start. Or it offers the thought, everything is so important I can’t possibly choose the most important thing. No sweat. Choose anything. If everything is equally important, then you can’t choose the wrong thing. It all needs to get done. So pick one project, break it down into smaller steps. And start taking action on it. Again we are simply getting your brain out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode. We’re bringing the executive brain back online. And we’re letting the toddler brain chill out for a bit. It no longer needs to run the show.

Coach Yourself

Then we move on to step five, which is to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? How do you feel about the to-do List download that you did? And how do you feel about the plan you just created that includes your one project and two tasks? Check in with your body and notice how you feel. Describe it in a one-word emotion. Maybe you’ve noticed the pressure return as you look at everything on your list. Or maybe you feel calm. Perhaps you feel clear or focused. Check-in on how you’re feeling and then ask yourself, why am I feeling this way? This will help you figure out your thoughts.

If you’re feeling increased pressure again, and your brain offers lots of different thoughts about not having enough time or not knowing what to do, this is a great opportunity for self-coaching. Again, this is something that I work on every week with different clients. And now that you’ve completed the stress cycle and you’ve cleared your mind, we can start making even greater headway with your thoughts. 

For example, if you’re stressed and thinking “there is too much to do, I can’t get it all done.” I encourage you to ask yourself – “what else is true?” Yes, there are several tasks on my to-do list (And if you can, get specific.) “Yes, there are 47 projects on my to-do list. And one of the thoughts my brain’s offering is: I can’t get it all done. But what else is true? Well, I know I can do some of it today. And some is better than none. Doing some moves me forward.”  

So find those thoughts that serve you. Maybe it’s, “I know exactly what I want to work on today.” Ir “I have the specific steps I need to complete these three things.” Or “I always have the time I need to complete the most important items on my list.” Find what feels true for you, and put that new thought on repeat so you feel focused and committed to moving forward on your plan. 

As a quick recap, anytime you notice yourself feeling stressed and overwhelmed, the first step is gaining awareness. Hit pause. Do you notice yourself shifting into fight, flight, or freeze mode? If so, what’s going on? 

Once you have your awareness, then it’s time to complete the stress cycle. Whether you do some deep breathing, you connect with someone you love, get some exercise, or have a good cry, allow yourself the space to complete the stress cycle. Again, if you want more information on this process, I highly recommend the book Burnout.

Then step three, take some time to gather your thoughts. Do a big thought download and figure out what is spinning around in your mind. What has you feeling so overwhelmed? 

Step four, choose one project from your thought download list that you can complete in 1-2 hours of focused time. As well as one or two small tasks that take 5 minutes or less. Give your brain focus and direction by committing to getting them done. 

And step five, check-in on how you’re feeling. What are your thoughts about taking action and completing the things? Find the thoughts that serve you and generate those powerful feelings of determination and commitment so you can move forward. 

Anytime you notice yourself feeling stuck on spinning in overwhelm, you can come back to this simple five-step process. Calm your racing mind, complete the stress cycle, and give yourself direction so you show up in your life in a way that feels good for you.

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