“Honey, did you get more cookies at the grocery store?” I called to my husband as I rifled anxiously through the pantry.
“No, I thought we just bought some,” he called back.
Turns out, we had just bought some—but I had already polished them off in what was becoming a dangerous nightly ritual:
Step 1: Get the kids to bed. Rush them through their nightly routine to be done as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Fly down the stairs to the kitchen.
Step 3: Eat all the cookies. (And scroll through my phone mindlessly while inhaling them.)
Fortunately—due to my history with emotional eating—it didn’t take me long to realize something was going on. That uncontrollable urge for more and more sweet stuff is always my first indicator that something is askew.
I was overwhelmed by motherhood, and every night I crammed cookies into my mouth to try to deal with it.
Motherhood is stressful, no doubt about it. And when that stress gets out of hand, it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze stress response in our bodies.
How do you know you’re overwhelmed? Well, you might find yourself yelling at your kids or your partner, your eyes welling with angry tears by small things that you can usually brush off. That’s your body’s fight response.
You might retreat into an extra glass (or two) of wine, or—if you’re like me—zone out with dessert and your iPhone. That’s your body’s flight response; you may not be able to flee the situation physically, but you sure can do it mentally and emotionally.
Or you might simply feel overcome by an inability to do anything at all. You can’t fight. You can’t flee. You can’t even move. You’re stuck. Frozen.
Fight, flight, or freeze.
Your body is doing what it has learned to do for physical survival in the face of a perceived threat. But since motherhood isn’t exactly threatening your life like the saber-toothed tigers our ancestors faced, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response isn’t all that helpful.
So when you feel like the only way you can cope right now is by screaming at your kids or zoning out with a big bowl of chips and salsa—or if you feel like you can’t even do that—try doing one or more of these things instead…and get back to feeling the joy of motherhood.
9 Things To Do When You’re Overwhelmed By Motherhood
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending swirl of thoughts in your head, the first step is just to dump them out of your brain and onto paper.
It doesn’t matter if the thoughts are logistical (like all the things you need to do before your daughter’s upcoming birthday party) or more emotional (like worries about how your sensitive son is going to cope with the challenges of middle school), you can’t effectively deal with them when your mind is so cluttered it can’t think straight.
So grab a pen and paper and just start writing. Don’t worry about the order or number of things that come spilling out—just let them splatter onto the page and give your brain a little bit of SPACE.
Once you’ve finished your brain dump, it’s time to sift through it all to find the essentials. Ask yourself: What do I truly need to do right now for myself and my family?
Sifting is different than just prioritizing; sifting is about survival mode. Again, if the stressors of motherhood have triggered survival mode in your body, then you need to show your body you are going to do what you must to survive—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
If you’re like me, you’ve read all the research about how multi-tasking isn’t really a thing (in other words, our brains can’t actually do it) and yet you continue to go through life attempting to accomplish more by focusing less.
While this is bad for your well-being any time, it’s even worse when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
So repeat to yourself: One. Thing. At. A. Time.
Not metaphorically. Literally!
A few days ago I stumbled upon my 4-year-old cleaning up all the toys in the living room, with zero asking or prompting. Then he told me his motivation: “I know a mess makes you stressed, Mommy.”
(Also: Awwwww, I love my sweet boy!)
I am far from alone: Study after study is proving that clutter = stress.
And truthfully, sometimes I think when we feel overwhelmed by motherhood, what we’re actually overwhelmed by is the stuff of motherhood: the toys, the outgrown clothes, the gadgets, the piles of laundry.
For some immediate relief, take 15 minutes to de-clutter the space immediately around you—the room you’re in, or even just the few feet surrounding you. Later, look into simplifying and minimizing your lifestyle so that there’s less stuff to junk up your space in the first place.
Do a digital detox.
When you’re overwhelmed, all of your digital devices are more likely to further harm than help. Take a deep breath and step away for as long as you can—the rest of the day, the rest of the hour, or just a few minutes. Remember what it’s like to live without constant access to a camera, email, and social media.
If you find that it relieves a bit of the stress, consider implementing a “Technology Sabbath” once a week to give yourself a regular re-charge.
Cancel upcoming plans.
When we feel overwhelmed by motherhood, it’s often connected to our busy lifestyles. The go-go-go mentality prioritizes productivity over rest, and accomplishment over connection. And it’s killing us.
So when you’re about to break, pull out your calendar and choose something to REMOVE. Then—and this is key!—don’t schedule anything else in its place. Leave it wide open so you can enjoy a Do Nothing Day (or a Do Nothing Hour, as the case may be).
Don’t overanalyze it.
Sometimes when we’re overwhelmed by motherhood, we launch into an existential crisis.
What’s wrong with me?
Why can’t I handle this?
I do love being a mom, don’t I? Then why do I feel like this???
Sure, there’s a time and a place for analyzing the course of our lives, but it isn’t from the deep pit of distress.
Stop the spiral by remembering that every parent gets overwhelmed sometimes. You’re not alone; indeed, you’re in a very, very good company! What you’re experiencing is normal, perfectly acceptable, and will pass.
I make it a point to regularly review Erica Layne’s handy list of 52 obtainable ways to simplify your life. The one I keep coming back to over and over again? Number 17: Double the time you spend outside.
There’s something about being outdoors that brings perspective. Big emotions feel more manageable. Big problems seem more solvable—or at least smaller.
Indeed, research shows that going for a hike can actually counter feelings of hopelessness and depression.
If a hike is doable for you right now, awesome! But even if it isn’t, you can still step outside your front door and get a few minutes of fresh air therapy.
Ask for help.
Perhaps part of the reason we may feel alone when we’re overwhelmed by motherhood—even though we’re not—is that we still don’t talk about it enough.
We still try to maintain this perfect facade of having it all together even when we feel like we’re crumbling inside.
It’s time to knock that the heck off!
It’s only when we get real with each other—opening ourselves up to vulnerability and authenticity—that we can truly help one another.
So forget the guilt trip, ditch the shame, and be honest with someone you trust about how you’re feeling. And then ask them to bring your family a meal, or handle a few loads of laundry, or just be a shoulder to cry on.
You’ve got this, mama.