If you’ve ever gone about your day with a tight-backed sense of stress with no discernable cause, you know how debilitating such an experience can be. When the feeling persists for weeks or even months, you’re liable to see your productivity plummet right along with your health.
Feeling overwhelmed is nothing new for the average person. More of us are busier than ever before — so many of us are self-starters, entrepreneurs, and creators, and all of those paths involve a plethora of moving parts. The self-employed are the world’s newest industry, and many of us are experiencing growing pains.
Most of us tend to underestimate the impact overwhelm has on us simply because it’s so common. By the time it gets to dangerous levels, we’re so caught up in our anxieties that they seem totally nebulous. How can you pick out any individual threads of tension from such a mess?
But knowing precisely where your overwhelm is coming from is the first step in overcoming it — and the answers you need lie in the power of human psychology.
In this article, I’m going to bring you some of the latest research on stress and guide you through the process of identifying, defeating, and moving forward from it. By the end, you’ll feel more in control and will be better prepared to embrace a productive, fulfilling future as a self-employed person.
The Science Of Stress In A Brand New World
If you had to describe stress to someone who’d never encountered it before, how would you do it? What words would you use to communicate something so familiar it’s become totally subconscious?
Luckily, tasks like this aren’t up to the average person. Psychologists have been exploring stress and its impact on our lives for centuries, and their research has revealed more and more about how the feeling operates.
The NIH defines stress as “a feeling of emotional or physical tension.” It is, in essence, “your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand.” In this case, the body includes your mental faculties.
Regardless of how its experienced, stress is always a response to stimuli in either the outward environment or your own inward thoughts and emotions. This is because the human brain doesn’t really differentiate between “real” threats like, say, a lion, and “imagined” threats like a paper deadline or an annoyed spouse.
Unfortunately, stimuli aren’t always neatly packaged or obvious to the person they’re impacting. This is why stress and its twin, overwhelm, often feel vague and persist for long periods of time. It’s also why many people feel like stress “follows” them no matter what surface-level changes they make to their lives.
Our modern age of mass-stimulus has only complicated things further. With such digitally oriented lives, many of us are subjected to more underlying stimuli than ever before. This is why many health experts are declaring that we’re experiencing a “stress epidemic” of epic proportions.
Of course no current article on stress and overwhelm would be credible without mentioning the recent impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its related political, economic, and personal implications.
Not only has stress become more prominent, but it’s also coming from more directions than ever before. This is especially true for the growing number of self-employed people who are forging their own paths all over the world.
Gigging Out: The Unique Stress Experience Of The Self-Employed
One of the most complicated aspects of studying stress is the fact that every person experiences it differently. While the basic mechanisms remain the same thanks to our shared biology, the ways in which stress plays out for each of us can look very different.
Self-employed people have many reasons for working the way they do. Some of those reasons integrate stress from the outset — many experts describe the trend as people fleeing to self-employment as a response to layoffs, poverty wages in traditional fields, and mistrust of both government and corporate structures.
Once in the arena of self-employment, workers take on more personal responsibility than their corporate counterparts. They become the sole bearer of their business, financial, marketing, creative, networking, and other burdens, and compared to traditional employees they take more risks each time they make a work-related decision.
And there are many decisions that have to be made when you’re self-employed. Each day, hour, and minute can bring a new project or task with it, and there are always a large number of moving parts for someone running their own business or sole proprietorship.
This is where things get tricky when it comes to stress for those of us who are self-dependent in our careers. With so many smoking pots on the stove, how can you tell which one is burning?
There are so many potential sources of stress that we tend to assume they’re all blended together into one tangled, opaque blob of “work stress” that’s impossible to break down into pieces and address. A permanent state of overwhelm becomes the acceptable norm — a cost, necessary for the careers we want to pursue.
This is dangerous, and it’s making us less happy, less productive, and more prone to serious health problems the longer the overwhelm lasts. It’s important that we break up the illusion before it breaks us.
Slippery Slopes vs. Steady Solutions — Eating Your Elephant Before It Eats You
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” This popular adage is rather gross if you ask me, but it has a point. Overwhelm feeds further overwhelm if it’s left unchecked.
Approaching your nebulous stress while simultaneously balancing all of your responsibilities as a self-employed person is not only harmful, it’s also impossible. Much like creative success, defeating chronic overwhelm is a marathon, not a sprint.
The risks of letting stress build and become normal for you are higher than you might think. Each year, thousands upon thousands of people suffer severe health consequences due to their consistently high stress levels. Neglecting your mental health is never a sustainable course of action.
Eventually, overwhelm catches up to you — and your body will pay the price.
So how do you even begin to deal with something so, well, overwhelming?
First, you have to address the word itself. To be overwhelmed is by definition to have “too much to deal with” at a given time. If you aren’t able to admit that you’ve taken on too much, you won’t be able to take your first steps toward stress recovery.
In my experience working with self-employed people, and as one of them, myself, I’ve found that this is where most of us get stuck. That’s right — we fail before we even begin when it comes to dealing with our chronic stress. When so much depends on your own decisions, it’s hard to admit when you’ve gone overboard while making them.
“I have no choice, all of this needs to get done,” is the excuse most people give for their overburdened state. Others say that they’re “just bad at time management” and better planning will eliminate the need for task reduction. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
For all that’s been said and written on the topic of time management and its alleged offspring, productivity, the fact of the matter is that most chronically stressed people aren’t going to gain anything by buying planners or implementing a “batching” technique when working through their to-do lists. If anything, the pressure to “manage their time better” will only make these people more stressed and overwhelmed.
At the end of the day, too much is simply too much. Elimination is an unavoidable part of approaching the problem of overwhelm.
Elimination — Learn To Live With It
When everything feels equally important, it’s equally impossible to let go of anything. It’s also a sign that you’re failing to prioritize.
Of all the executive functions, the human ability to prioritize tasks is one of our most fundamentally valuable traits. It’s also one of the most vulnerable skillsets for the self-employed, as we’re more likely to feel that everything we do is a priority.
There is only one way to lighten this burden, and that’s to cut out certain tasks completely. Accepting this reality is non-negotiable if you want to handle chronic stress and avoid the long-term consequences it can have on your mind and body.
Deciding what to eliminate involves simple measurement. If you hate math like me, this news is unwelcome. But it doesn’t need to be complicated — a simple piece of lined paper with hours of the day labeled and room for you to record your tasks will suffice. See where you spend your increments of time and energy.
This “task audit” exercise tends to be pretty enlightening, and it will help you to narrow down your perspective to a day at a time instead of a nameless, long-term stretch that is likely to feed into the overwhelm.
Radical (And Sometimes Uncomfortable) Self-Honesty Is Vital
I touched on this earlier, but self-honesty is one of the biggest struggles most of us face in our inner lives. Self-deception is an adaptation that’s meant to keep us calm and collected when we’re threatened by something, and it’s also a part of our social psychology.
By lying to ourselves, we are often able to convince others of our own importance or value, and this has long been a tactic for upward mobility and status. Unfortunately it remains ingrained in us even when it’s decidedly not useful and is in fact holding us back.
In the context of this piece, self-deception usually takes the form of consistent overestimation of how much energy we really have inside of us. We “believe” we can give up sleep, proper recreation, and other important self-care activities without incurring too great a cost.
It’s called self-deception for a reason. Building a lifestyle on such lies is a recipe for disaster. It isn’t sustainable, your productivity will plummet, and eventually you’ll burn out both mentally and physically. It’s a gamble you’ll never win.
Being honest with yourself may require you to face some hard decisions, but ultimately these will be easier than the ones you’ll have to make when you burn out from chronic overwhelm. These choices may involve cutting a client or outsourcing something for a cost, or it may even mean admitting that the career you’re currently pursuing isn’t viable.
If these realizations and action items weren’t hard, self-deception wouldn’t have activated in the first place. Just keep in mind that the dishonesty we exercise within ourselves is largely what hides our true sources of stress, and it’s what makes overwhelm so murky and difficult to confront.
It’s okay if you can’t work up to the level of honesty you need right away, but you’re going to have to start somewhere. Accept this as soon as you possibly can.
Understand Where Social Myths Are Holding You Back And Building Up Your Stress
To illustrate this point, do a quick search of “why you should be a freelancer” on Google and take a look at the top results. There are articles telling you you’ll be able to make six figures within months, easily travel the world while working, and all sorts of other things.
It looks positively rosy. It’s also mostly made up nonsense. Most of us already know this, but that image of freelancing doesn’t exist in reality.
Self-employment of any kind is hard work for the simple reason that you are the beginning, middle, and end of each project and goal you set. And while most of us have figured this out on a conscious level, our subconscious tends to be a lot more susceptible to myths and stereotypes.
We create scripts inside of ourselves, and these scripts act as basic “storylines” that dictate how we perceive the world around and within us. When reality doesn’t align with these scripts, stress comes into play. Remember what I said earlier? Stress is really just tension — and tension happens when two things aren’t matched up.
This particular kind of stress is called cognitive dissonance and it can be insidious for the self-employed person.
If you believe the “hype” on some deeper level, and you think that your work “should” be easy, or that you “should” be living a certain kind of lifestyle because of it, you’re going to experience tension when your lived reality doesn’t match up with those beliefs.
I find that some level of cognitive dissonance almost always plays a major part in chronic stress for the “solopreneur” of today, likely because of the prevalence of guru-sponsored stereotypes and a plethora of social media messages we receive about our various fields.
The good news is that simply being aware of this dissonance is often enough to begin the process of breaking it down. Self-reflection in the form of journaling, joining support groups, or simply expressing your concerns to a friend will help you if the stress persists.
A Parting Word About Clinical Anxiety And Related Disorders
This article addresses many things relating to chronic stress and overwhelm, but if you have a clinical anxiety disorder, the methods I cited may not be enough to ensure your quality of life.
The reason for this is fairly simple, but understandably frustrating. When you have anxiety (which I do, by the way), many of these factors probably are taking place — but even if you work through them, your anxiety will simply find a new way to induce stress and overwhelm.
You can change out a lightswitch, but if the problem lies with the electrical plant, it won’t solve your problem. Anxiety is a complex system of interacting brain functions, and at its core it is a response to baseline overstimulation. It’s not necessarily based on your circumstances.
All this is to say that you should do whatever you can to seek proper treatment for your disorder in addition to or after addressing the problems mentioned in this article. I wrote up a guide to free or affordable mental health resources a while back that you may find useful:
Ultimately, handling stress that seems to come from everywhere at once is really a matter of understanding that it’s actually coming from somewhere, and you can find those sources and work through them if you arm yourself with knowledge.
As a global society, we seem to be moving into a collective mindset that acknowledges the very real cost and danger of chronic stress. Being overwhelmed is unavoidable from time to time, but it’s no way to live your life.
More and more people are becoming self-employed. It’s vital that we accept and face the realities of overwhelm before our work and personal lives pay the price.