How to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Starts to Pull You Under

A guest post by Katie Tallo of Momentum Gathering.

Human beings can’t swim when we’re born. Maybe we don’t have the natural instinct or the gills or the muscles. We take lessons, splashing and gasping in the safety of our parent’s arms until one day we learn to do it on our own. Some of us take to it like fish, others sink like rocks. But all of us, the fish and the flounderers, are thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim at some point. It’s called growing up.

That’s when the waves of responsibility start to come at us. Some wash over us, others splash us in the face. Many of us end up treading the deep waters of debt, anxiety, loneliness or overwork. And even for the good swimmers, there are moments when our buoyancy leaves us and we feel like we’re sinking – being pulled under by the weight of daily life.

Overwork has been pulling me under lately. I’ve got too much on my plate, too much I feel I should be doing, too many ideas I want to follow through on, relationships I want to nurture, obligations I have to meet, people who count on me to take care of them, books I’d like to read, travels I want to take and new skills I’d like to master.

Even though I’m super inspired and jazzed by life’s possibilities, the multitude of options, advice, choices, directions, destinations and decisions feels so deep sometimes that I can’t possibly see my way to swimming across them all, no matter how many strokes off my to-do list I make. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits even suggests killing your to-do list altogether. I’ve thought about it, but I’m a list person so when I’ve reached this point, I know I have to do something differently so that my to-do list isn’t just one more thing pushing me under. I know I have to take action so that I don’t completely lose myself.

Here are five ways that help me keep my head above water when life feels like it’s pulling me under? I hope they help you too if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Let Yourself Float

Relax. Breath. Force yourself to pause, stop, and just be. Even if it’s just for a few moments, inside that calm space, beyond all your “shoulds”, “to-dos” and “what-ifs”, is room for you to gather your thoughts, your strength, your senses, your priorities and your purpose. Inside stillness is a place in which you can float, chill out and hear yourself. You likely already know what you need and what comes next. Let yourself float and listen.

Expend Less Energy

If you’re overwhelmed, simply decide to do less, take on less, be less and have less – just for now. Let yourself come up for air by expending less energy. Money is energy, time is energy, fear is energy, emotion and drama are energy – spend less and release yourself from the pressure of more.

Keep Looking Up

See and love each moment instead of what’s up ahead or behind. Stay right where you are and embrace the bright side, the upside, the half full, the wonder. Let go the weight of negativity. You are where you are. Love what you have and who you are. The rest will come.

Reach Out

Ask for help, join forces, be vulnerable, open, collaborative. Express your needs. Find a mentor, guide, advisor, listener, motivator or friend. Being overwhelmed by life doesn’t mean you have to be overwhelmed alone. Reach out, make yourself heard, let yourself be loved and energized by someone else’s assistance and understanding.

Swim in the Right Direction

Turn in the direction of your values and swim that way, every day. If each move you make is aligned with what you believe in, what makes sense to you and what carries you towards what you want, then you’ll start to get there. In fact, you’ll already be there, just by swimming your way. But if you keep going in the same direction that got you overwhelmed, in debt or unhappy, then you’ll find yourself back where you started. Decide to change direction. That shift can make a world of difference.

Swimming through deep waters is not easy. It takes practice, strength, stamina and sometimes a little kicking along the way. But, if you learn to float, expend less energy, look up, reach out and head in the right direction, swimming can be as joyful and simple as it was when you were a kid.

I might be a little water-logged at the moment, but I’m ready to float for a while so that I can catch my breath and see where the ripples of my soul decide to take me. Then, and only then, will I swim in the direction of my dreams.

How do you keep your head above water when life overwhelms you?

Katie Tallo is a director, writer, motivator, runner, vegetarian and mother who writes a blog called Momentum Gathering where she encourages simple, positive actions for joyful and vibrant life change. She is also a Managing Editor for The Daily Brainstorm.

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  1. BreRoz says:

    I cried when I read this whole thing. In my office. (weird) But I am drowning right now in anxiety. I am so scared, it has completely ruined my life and I work my way out of it but then, just when I get things going awesome… here it is again.

    I am going to take this advice. Thank you.

  2. Hi Katie,

    The idea of swimming is a good one to describe our efforts in the stream of life. Keeping afloat is all we can hope for as the stormy waves threaten to flood us.

    Perhaps, we also need to think how we can be ‘lifeguards’ to come to te rescue of folk we see struggling in the currents of stress and anxiety.
    .-= Scott McIntyre´s last blog ..You Can Do It! Winning Strategies to Conquer Self Doubt =-.

  3. Hi Katie – Lovely post. Today, I’m being a clock-watcher, thinking about how much there is to do after school is out, running the kids around to activities … then I click back over to the present, where I need to get some blog posts written and finish a freelance project.

    Right now, I’m going to take a few moments to float. Thanks for the tip… Be well. Melissa

  4. Hi Katie, I know exactly what you mean. Every day I hit a sink or swim moment. And some days even the thoughts of sinking are too exhausting to contemplate. I loved this post especially when you remind us to look to our values to see if we’re going where we want to go. It seems like you are truly in tune with the ripples of your soul now. Float peacefully and enjoy the scenery!
    .-= Rosemary Hannan´s last blog ..A Brief Guide To Going Over The Edge =-.

    • Katie says:

      @Rosemary Hannan, thank you. I may sound like I’m in tune with my soul, but these are lessons I keep having to write about to keep myself afloat. I guess we write about our issues and hope to help others in the process. Cheers.

  5. Lovely article Katie. I love the analogy of swimming – where it’s essential to remember to breathe. Yoga, meditation and walking in Nature help me when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

    Also it helps to take really good care of myself by eating well, getting enough sleep and hanging with friends who know how to keep a positive attitude even in tough times. There’s nothing better than someone you really trust looking you in the eye and saying, “Everything’s going to be okay. You are divinely supported.” Even when that “someone I trust” is ME saying it to myself in the mirror. It works!
    .-= Linda Gabriel´s last blog ..The Little Voice in Your Head – Friend or Foe =-.

  6. I waited to read this until late today because I had to “float.” I love how you put it. I had to just stop doing, stop reading, stop everything except what absolutely had to be done.

    When I’m overwhelmed I pretty much do as you describe though I’ve thought of it as “just doing what has to be done.” Everything else can wait. I had to take a shower, had to do a small amount of work, had to run the dishwasher, had to go to a couple stores for my (ailing) cat, had to go to a club meeting not because I technically had to, but I had to do it for myself, for relaxation or fun instead of work-type stuff or taking care of home stuff. And I only listened, really, for the most part, instead of taking part in things as I normally do.

    The dogs got a short walk tonight–they forgive me. I ate take-out from a food bar, which was great, and better than I would have made for myself on a day like today. I just have to “veg” sometimes and not do much of anything. Kind of like what you have to do with a rip current: float, keep your feet up and out of the undercurrent, swim parallel to the shore, don’t over do it while aiming for dry land somewhere, little by little. Relax, you’ll get there.

    At least that’s what I told myself today πŸ™‚
    .-= Leah McClellan´s last blog ..Who Do You Think You’re Talking To 7 Tips for Better Conversations =-.

  7. Sandra Lee says:

    This is so timely, Katie. It seems like everyone around me is barely holding their head above water. I like the idea of just stopping, pausing, and letting be. Hope you have a great float!
    .-= Sandra Lee´s last blog ..My magic potion for knocking anxiety on its head =-.

  8. I’m currently reading the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, which Mary recommended. There is an experiment described in there related to wanting to keep all doors, or options, open. The test subjects went to ridiculous and markedly illogical lengths to keep their options open, even in a simple experiment where it made no sense to do so and was quite easy to evaluate.

    For me I think just being aware of the stupidity of my own impulses to do too much and keep too many options open acts as an antidote. I’ve been totally guilty of keeping too many options open with my writing, but recently life has been far too busy to think of so many things and I’ve actually been more focused. Sometimes we just need to make a gut decision on which shore to strike out for and then keep on swimming and not turn back.
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last blog ..Where do robins go in winter =-.

  9. Carolee says:

    A walk in the woods behind my house help ground me. There are gorgeous colored leaves (this season) on the trees, and there is a huge pond back there with geese swimming

    So peaceful……

    Of course, since we started camping, I just need to visit there for a day or so. I come back ready to go!
    .-= Carolee´s last blog ..Blogging wanna-be Reserve this date =-.

  10. Solutions to the challenges we face often defy analysis – primarily because we don’t have enough information. In reality, there may NEVER be enough information to reach an analytical conclusion. The key is to recognize when this is happening and give yourself permission to listen instinctively or intuitively to what makes sense. Stop thinking about it and the right path will emerge. It’s like when you are stuck on a problem at your desk but clarity appears the moment you start driving home. Magic!
    .-= Charley Hampton´s last blog ..What about your cigarette burns =-.

  11. Joe Wilner says:


    Awesome notion of “learning to swim!” It’s really a great metaphor to taking on life and beginning to seek truth. We must learn that life will provide us what we need and not to panic and loose control. It’s the idea of learning to float that you mention. We have to stay calm and collected and learn to trust are capabilities. It can be tough and we may feel as though we’ll just sink, though learning to swim is a necessary struggle to be able to weather the storms of life. Thanks for the post!
    .-= Joe Wilner´s last blog ..Feeling Tense How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety through Breath Work =-.

    • Katie says:

      @Joe Wilner, you are reminding me of what it’s like to watch a new swimmer. When they flail about they sink faster than when they just stay calm. And so in life when we flail about we have a hard time floating. I like that you mention trusting ourselves. So much of life is just that.

  12. Linda says:

    Brilliant. Love it!
    Thinking about your swimming analogy, I went snorkelling for the first time a couple of years back and I was sooo scared. I’m not happy in deep water. But my instructor was so good:
    he went at my pace,
    he held my hand at first and
    he swam alongside me.
    Perhaps that’s what we should do more of in our lives. Deep water’s OK if we have someone to be alongside…
    .-= Linda´s last blog ..How To Solve Your Problem With A Little Help From Your Friends =-.

  13. sage says:

    One thing you didn’t touch on and which is a big problem for me is that when I’m feeling overwhelmed I lose my creativity.

    You also referred to Leo kicking his To Do List. I would absolutely love, love, love to know if this is truly a possibility on the way to where you want to go, or just a luxury for those who have reached their destination. I’ve tried it and it’s making me anxious and less productive I think.


    • Katie says:

      @sage, you are right. For some of us, creativity needs a calm space in which to flourish. Sounds like you’re like me and need your to-do list. It gives me a sense of space when I get it down on paper and then can leave it, knowing I won’t forget something later. That helps me then get on with creating. Maybe Leo has a really good memory, but I don’t, or maybe he has simplified his life to the point where he’s doing one task at a time only. Either way, his article is well worth a read.

  14. Uzma says:

    So True Katie. Am bogged right now, with unexpected stuff, like a little whirlpool that just came to me. So I accepted it, and am floating with it. Have learned though that there is learning in everything and everything is for a reason, the gushing, the still water, the storm. So am just going with the flow, (like u so rightly said with the values on my compass). Thank u for the great post. Love the allegory with water. I think it was Bruce Lee who said, ‘be like water’ πŸ™‚

  15. […] How to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Starts to Pull You Under [SEO: "Many of us end up treading the deep waters of debt, anxiety, loneliness or overwork. And […]

  16. Hi Katie,

    Wonderful post, I loved all of these tips.

    ‘Let yourself float’ resonated the most for me. Sometimes it’s best to just let go and trust that your inner self can sort things out. I’ve found that , for me, thrashing around is conducive to sinking, trusting my innate wisdom ensures that I’ll find my place (floating above the water, hopefully πŸ™‚ )
    .-= Dave Rowley´s last blog ..Illustration Friday- Transportation =-.

    • Katie says:

      @Dave Rowley, I think you’re right. When we hear words like float, ease, and flow, we tend to connect them to our instincts, to letting go and to trusting our inner selves. Interesting how relaxing can get us farther. I guess we are all holding on very tight to something we know isn’t quite right in our guts.

  17. Lance says:

    Oh…how good this is to read. I can look at this list – and filter on those which I am doing (i.e. like your first point about stillness…which I have found to be so good in my life). And…it makes me feel good to know I’m there (thank you, Katie!).

    It’s the other ones, though – that are even more meaningful – as I read today. The ones where I’m not quite there – like reaching out. I get this, and I even think on some level that I do it. The thing is, though – on that level which has the deepest meaning to me…I hold back. Today…your words (especially on this one) land upon my soul…as I let this sink in more deeply. Thank you so much for writing this…
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Life Lessons- The Marathon =-.

    • Katie says:

      @Lance, I have similar issues. Reaching out isn’t easy. I’m a solitary person who gets more done alone — or at least I think I do. Part of it is ego, part is fear, part is that I feel an inner peace when I’m in it alone. Reaching out is part of how we swim as humans. Worth doing once in a while, especially when overwhelmed.

  18. justlife says:

    Hi Katie,
    Sometimes it’s ironic when you know you’re swimming in the right direction but it’s so overwhelming and stressed out. I guess it’s the ‘want to do it all – now’ attitude that pull me under the water. Thanks for the tips of ‘take less, have less’ and ‘want less’. I think it’s time to learn on meditation to keep me afloat πŸ™‚

    • Katie says:

      @justlife, you’re right. Even if we know we’re on the right path, we can be running too fast and trip and fall. A steady pace gets you there. I often see this with angry drivers. We’re all going in the same direction, but they whiz past people hoping to get ahead, but usually arrive the same time as people going at a reasonable pace do. Traffic, swimming, running, it’s all about pacing yourself, breathing and letting go being first.
      .-= Katie´s last blog ..Are You Gathering Womentum =-.

  19. Aileen says:

    Katie, you are such a phenomenally talented writer. You convey this whirlwind with a simple clarity and make life’s giant waves just make sense. Having an intense desire to live fully often means getting in over our heads and if we’re not careful we burn out rather than swim with the currents. You offer some clear and wonderful suggestions for handling mammoth to-do lists that are made up of both the necessities and th passions.

    I just love these words of wisdom, “Turn in the direction of your values and swim that way, every day. If each move you make is aligned with what you believe in, what makes sense to you and what carries you towards what you want, then you’ll start to get there”
    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..Sometimes Life Gives Us Second Chances =-.

  20. Chris says:

    Swimming with our values. Sometimes that’s difficult because it’s against the prevailing current.

    Thanks for the metaphor. It’s a powerful image I will take with me.

    This article is in line with the concept of “make your mind an ocean.”

  21. Beautiful post… Strongly resonated with me in a time of major change. Thank you for reminding me that when I start to feel I “should” do more is exactly when I need to do less.

  22. Katie,
    I love this “embrace the bright side, the upside, the half full, the wonder” Isn’t life grand?
    .-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..The BridgeMaker- Alex Blackwell =-.

  23. Hi Katie,

    Thank you for this post. When I feel like I’m sinking, I read inspirational blogs, drink hot tea, and remind myself how many reasons I have to be grateful.

    I like the idea of swimming toward my ideals, which is what I try to do everyday. It’s nice to remember that every small movement can help.
    .-= Kori Golightly´s last blog ..on thoughtfulness and goals revisited =-.

  24. Anne says:

    I really appreciate this advice. I have battled anxiety in the past and gotten better about managing it, but recently I am floundering. I attempted to do an intense semester of student teaching while completing an honors thesis. I have neglected the thesis all semester. When I have to make a decision about what to work on, the education of my students always takes precedent over my research. I don’t know what to do. I put two years of work into the research, and it seems wrong to abandon it (not to mention I don’t know if I will be penalized academically for dropping the credit hours this late in the semester-the website is unbelievably confusing). I wanted to graduate with honors, because I have heard that it opens doors for you when applying to grad school, but I don’t see the work load from teaching letting up any time this semester. I’m lost, and I have to decide whether I am shooting for graduating with honors now, so that my parents can order invitations for graduation. I don’t think it’s a good idea to move the thesis to the spring semester, because I’ve already applied for graduation and I can’t keep asking for money from my parents to pay for my education (especially just to take one optional class). It seems like the wisest choice would be for me to start teaching full time next semester, if I can find a job. So much uncertainty!

    • katie says:

      @Anne, I’m sorry to hear that you are so anxious. Life can get very overwhelming, especially for post secondary students. My daughter just started a teaching degree and the courses aren’t easy, so I sympathize. It sounds like your heart is in the right place (with your students), and it also sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate.

      I’m no expert but I would suggest that maybe you forget confusing websites and go see a student advisor, mentor or counsellor at your school to talk out your situation, see what your options are and express your anxiety to someone who can offer solid ideas for your next steps. Your parents might have some advice too. Take care of yourself, be kind to yourself and reach out. I hope you find your way.

      Sometimes looking at the worse case scenario is a good way to let go the anxiety a bit. It’s amazing that you know what you love doing and that you’re in school. You’ll get there with a little help.
      .-= katie´s last blog ..The 7-Week Life Cleanse- A Simple Guide to Infusing Your Life with Momentum =-.

  25. penelope says:

    thanks for this great article and advice. When I am overwhelmed I try to remember what a teacher of mine once said in response to a fellow student who complained about not having enough time to get everything done. My teacher said, “Everybody wants to “get things done.” What is so great about getting things done? So what are you going to do–get your life done too–and then what?”

    I have to say that this comment turned my head around completely! Really why do we HAVE to get things done?

    also, I agree with you completely that living life according to one’s values is surprisingly soothing and it’s a choice that we can make and yet we are so often unaware of or are reluctant to claim this power.

  26. beneath the waves a population is teeming
    deriving oxygen from airless breathing
    you know why fish don’t name the ocean they’re in
    moment to moment it’s mostly
    sink or swim
    .-= Adena Atkins´s last blog ..Protect Something Important =-.

  27. […] can throw curve balls. Goodlife Zen has a good list of tips for “How to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Starts to Pull You Under” when chucking everything isn’t an […]

  28. As one reaches for what feels good, one experiences the good life zen, you grow into an advocate for who you are. Very little effort is required. You joyfully do work and things happen to perpetuate the good feelings. Love how you empower people.
    .-= Liara Covert´s last blog ..Its all cued up =-.

  29. […] How to keep your head above water when life starts to pull you under […]

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