3 Ways to Deal with Overwhelm as an Artist

Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama

We’ve all been there. You’re happily chugging along, working on your work, getting stuff done, when seemingly out of nowhere — BAM. You feel like you’ve just been hit by a truck.

You feel completely overwhelmed with all the tasks on your to-do list. You feel like you’ll never get everything done in time. You feel physically zapped with no energy, and you feel like your brain has been flattened into a pancake incapable of doing or thinking about anything. Everything becomes just too much to handle.

This happened to me last week. There was no big crisis or trauma that caused it. My work is going well. My family is happy and safe. I’m in good health and live in a great city. But the stress came and overtook my life anyways.


Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama


So, as I wallowed on the couch and realized I was breaking down, I asked myself: why do I suddenly feel overwhelmed and stressed by literally everything? And more importantly, how can I stop feeling this way?

“You cannot imagine the craving for rest that I feel — a hunger and thirst. For six long days, since my work was done, my mind has been a whirlpool, swift, unprogressive and incessant, a torrent of thoughts leading nowhere, spinning round swift and steady” –H.G. Wells, writer

Everyone gets stressed, no matter how good or happy your life is. Whether you’re a high-powered CEO in charge of a huge company, or you’re a student just trying to get through another history class. Stress just happens. We can’t avoid stress completely, but we can change the way we react to it, and learn how to rebound more quickly from it.

The key is being able to recognize you’re stressed so you can pull yourself out of it.

By no means do I live a stress-free, perfect life. But after this most recent encounter with a stress-induced breakdown, I’ve realized some things I can do to get out of these moments when they happen, and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Because we all hit the wall at some point. And we need to learn how to push through it so we can keep making our art.


Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama


Tip 1: Take Breaks During the Day

We can’t sustain living everyday like the Energizer bunny, racing around from the moment we wake up to the moment we pass out in bed. You need to give your body and brain the chance to recoup and renew during the day, not just at the end of the day.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t just try to power through it. Step back, and give yourself a little break.

Take a nap. Read a book. Drink a cup of tea. Meditate. Find what renews you best.

Personally, I like to lay down for 30 mins right after lunch every day. Sometimes I use this time to nap, if I’m running really low on energy. But most of the time I read a book. Sometimes I read lying down on the couch, and sometimes I read out on the patio in the sun. If I give myself permission to just relax for 30 minutes, I always feel a million times better during the day and it completely renews my energy.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ―John Lubbock, banker


Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama


Tip 2: Just Say No

No matter how productive we are or how much energy we have, we still only have so many hours we can work each day. If you’re self-employed like me, or trying to manage your side hustles and passion projects, the key to completing things and getting the things that really matter done, is saying no to everything else.

It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to say no to things. When you say no to something, you feel like you’re missing out, or letting people down, or being selfish for prioritizing this thing over that thing.

But you are only one person, and you can only focus on so much at a time. If this thing you’re doing is really important, then you need to say no to other things to be able to work on it.

Last week I was feeling totally overwhelmed with everything my work and personal life. I had taken on too much work and too many tasks. So I realized: I’m going to have to start saying no to things. And I did. I had two emails in my inbox from companies I enjoyed working for that had contacted me about starting a new project. It sounded fun. The people are nice. My instinct was to say yes.

But I knew I couldn’t handle it. I knew I didn’t have the time in my schedule. I would have been way too stressed if I accepted the job, and the work on those projects and the projects that were most important to me would have suffered. My work would have suffered and I would have suffered. The only real reason I wanted to accept the assignment was because it would have meant more money in my pocket. And that can’t be the sole priority when deciding to take on more work.

So I chose to stay the course, not add to my already overflowing plate, and say no. And I immediately felt a weight lifted off my shoulder that was worth way more to me in mental energy and strength, than what that short project would have paid in dollars.

“What you don’t do determines what you can do.” –Tim Ferriss, author


Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama


Tip 3: Take a Whole Day Off

Maybe a nap just isn’t enough to cut it. You’re stressed. Like REALLY stressed. You need more time. I’m here today to give you permission to take a whole day off. Don’t work on your projects. Don’t think about your to-do list. Don’t answer phone calls. Don’t check your email. Put away your computer, and just take the day off.

Go read a book. Go for a walk. Take a bath in the middle of the day. Eat a chocolate croissant.

Give yourself a break — a total break from everything.

I took the day off on Friday, as I was having my mini-breakdown, and it did wonders to get my brain and body back to normal. Yes, I missed a couple emails. Yes, I didn’t respond as quickly to comments and messages. And yes, maybe someone noticed I took the day off.

But all of that is worth it to get back to feeling 100% normal. To get back to being able to be productive and happy. You have to keep yourself healthy — mentally and physically — as your first priority, otherwise you’ll never be able to continue making your art for the long term. You can take one day off, and everything will still be there when you get back.

Your body, brain, and soul will thank you for it, and you’ll come back ready to take on the world again, stronger than ever.


Dealing with Overwhelm as an Artist, Christine Nishiyama


“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” –Maya Angelou, poet


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