Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

My client, Rosa, was having what she admitted was a pretty bad day. “I don’t even know where to start. So, I apologize in advance, but I’m just going to lay it all out and maybe you can help me figure out what to do.”

“That’s a good start,” I answered.

She took a deep breath and said, “Here goes. I just found out my doctor is leaving the clinic I go to, and they aren’t replacing her with someone in her specialty. So, I have to find a new doctor. My boss told me the company may have to do some belt-tightening and I’m afraid that might mean I have a layoff in my future. My daughter is starting to look at colleges, so now we’ve got paying-for-college stress ahead of us. My insurance company just tripled the copayment on my medication. And I’ve got family from out of state coming into town this week.”

Rosa threw her hands up in the air and exclaimed, “I’m so overwhelmed I feel like I don’t where to go next.”

“You have a whole lot going on in your life right now, that’s for sure,” I said. “But it seems to me that you are looking at this as all one big problem, instead of looking at each of these problems separately. When you do that, you kind of turn everything into mud. Right now, you’re stuck in that mud.”

“So how do I get out of it?” she asked.

“Well, how about if we tackle one problem at a time.”

Breaking it down

First, I helped help Rosa to identify each of one of her problems. New doctor. Higher copayment. College planning. Belt-tightening at work. Upcoming family visit.

From there, we discussed each of these problems one by one. We talked about decisions that had to be made and when they needed to be made. We talked about the urgency of each one. We talked about what Rosa had control over and what she was just going to need to wait out. And we talked about assuming there’s a crisis without having enough information.

This wasn’t exactly what I would call a miraculous process, but it felt like that to Rosa. She left my office feeling less burdened and more optimistic. She was no longer stuck in mud of her own creation. And she had the beginning of an action plan, which we would continue to work on together.

If things get muddy for you

Ever feel like the problems you face are just too overwhelming, piling on top of each other until you feel like you can’t move? If so, chances are you have turned them into mud.

But like Rosa, you can do something about that stuck-in-the-mud feeling. Here are the steps:

Make a list. In no specific order. Just brainstorm with yourself about everything weighing you down. Give each problem a name, like I did with Rosa, and write it down. Now at least you know what all that mud is made of.

Do your own problem analysis. One by one, take a close look at each of the problems on your list. And for each problem, here are some important questions for you to consider:

- Ask yourself: What’s the decision to be made or the action to be taken? As you take a look at each of your problems, your answer to this question may range from life-changing to not that big a deal. This is an important exercise, because it’s going to help you to clarify what you need to be focusing your energy on. You’ll also see where your energy is not needed because the problem will resolve itself—or, when given a closer look, is not such a problem at all. This is a big step toward digging yourself out of the mud.
- Ask yourself: What’s the level of urgency? As you make this decision, think about not only how this problem is impacting you, but also how it’s impacting your loved ones. And remember that maintaining your health makes everything else in your life possible. Right?
- Ask yourself: What’s the timeframe? Rosa’s family was coming this weekend, so that needed her immediate attention. Her doctor was leaving in a month., so she also needed to get her search process started. Remember you aren’t a machine; you can only multitask so much. Think about deadlines being imposed on you and deadlines you might be imposing on yourself, realistic or unrealistic.
- Don’t forget the control thing. Ask yourself how much control you have over each problem. There’s not much we can do about some of them. Like Rosa’s concern about the future of her job. That would unfold in its own time. In the meantime, beyond making sure her résumé was in good shape and keeping in touch with her network, it wasn’t something that she could do anything to change.

Prioritize your list. Most likely, timeliness will be a key factor in creating priorities. But the other factors, timeframe and control, also play a role in determining priority.

> I believe that if you have thought through each of the problems on your list, the priorities will be clear.

Start figuring out a way forward. Gradually. Starting with the most urgent problem, develop a strategy for each one. You may want to focus most of your attention on the problem that is most urgent. You don’t have to figure out a way forward for every one of your problems. The ones farther down on the list may not need your attention yet.

Revisit your list frequently. Coping with the challenges of life is an ongoing process. As you make progress in dealing with one problem, you may start to focus farther down on the list. Other problems may resolve themselves, or just fade away. And who knows, given how random life is, another problem is likely to pop up and need to find its appropriate place among your list of priorities.

Maintain your perspective. Remember, the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the problems you need to deal with is to consider each of them separately, one at a time. And to be clear with yourself on your priorities.

You, your wellness, and the problems that life brings our way. Take a step back and identify the problems you’re facing. Get to know what you’re up against with each one. Prioritize. And then tackle them one step—and one problem—at a time. Stay out of the mud!

What helps when you feel overwhelmed? Share your advice by adding a comment below.