Too Much on Your Plate: Get a Handle on Stress

05.12.24 05:20 PM By Peak Mind

Too Much on Your Plate: Get a Handle on Stress

Do you have a lot on your plate? Does it ever feel like too much?

If so, you're not alone.

This month just so happens to be Stress Awareness Month, and it couldn't be more timely. I'm hearing that sentiment from so many people, from teens to senior citizens and everyone in between, both in my psychology practice and in my personal life. It seems like everyone is on the verge of being maxed out, stressed out, or even completely burned out

What gives?


The Stress Buffet

I once ate at a massive buffet in a Las Vegas casino. Sprawling across a ginormous room, there were at least 10 stations, everything ranging from comfort food to Italian to Asian to seafood to burgers and pizza to salads and desserts. Just about anything you could ask for was available. And while so many choices may seem like a good thing, it was actually overwhelming and all but guaranteed I wasn't going to feel good when I left. 

Modern life is like that buffet. 

There are so many options, so many potential demands for our time, attention, and energy (aka, stressors) that it's no wonder our plates get so full. 


Fitting It All In

When we add a little bit of this and a little bit of that, trying to fit everything in, we end up with a heaping plate piled so precariously high that things fall off the edges as we start to dig in, leaving a mess to clean up. Poetic isn't? 

That's exactly what happens when we pretend like we're Superman/ woman/ person and try to cram every single thing onto our metaphorical stress plates. It seems like a good idea in theory, but it's not going to end well. 

The effects of stress are cumulative; little things add up. And when too many things hit us all at once, our capacity is exceeded, and we're going to feel stressed out. It might show up as sleep problems or forgetfulness, short fuses or negative thinking, low energy or aches and pains. It might make us moody or avoidant or drive us to unhealthy numbing strategies. Things start to fall apart, and life gets messy.


Bigger Plates

You might think the answer is to just get a bigger plate - to increase your capacity to take on more. Sure, there might be benefit in being able to handle more stressors before you get stressed out, but I'd argue against the notion that bigger is better.

In fact, I think we've already gone down that our detriment.

The size of dishware has increased significantly since a generation ago. My giant oversized coffee mugs leave me with a distorted perception of what a morning coffee should be. 8 ounces? Please! That's child's play. Similarly, our view of what we should be able to do in a day has become inflated. We're running around, maxed out stress-wise, thinking that this is normal. 

It's not. 

I was busy as a kid - a few dance classes a week and maybe girl scouts or piano lessons - but I had plenty of downtime to hang out with friends, play outside, and watch TV. These days, it's a different story.

Kids are so incredibly overly scheduled that chauffeuring them from one activity to another is basically a full-time job...on top of the one you already addition to everything else that humans need to do like leisure, self-improvement, take care of your health, run errands, clean, groom, socialize, spiritual practices, and sleep.

Sleep? What is that?

Kidding. Sleep is non-negotiable if your goal is to manage stress. 

So if we don't need bigger plates, what do we need? 


Finding Balance

To really belabor a metaphor here, what we need is a well-balanced stress plate with reasonable portions. 

If we load up only on one thing, even if that one thing is something we truly enjoy (brownie sundaes, anyone?), we will eventually get sated, but our nutritional needs won't be met. 

Likewise, if you dedicate all of your time, attention, and energy to one thing, say work, your life is not going to be balanced. You will not be satisfied, and your needs won't be met. 

We need a variety of things in our day-to-day experience to lead balanced fulfilling lives. To get there, we must be intentional about what stressors we take on (knowing that life will, inevitably, throw some unexpected ones at us as well).

That said, we can not say yes to everything available. We must be discerning with what we allow on our plates. Is this something I need or want, or is it just something being offered (pushed on) to me? 


Saying No

I was raised a good Southern girl. If you cook for me, I will eat it with a smile even I don’t want to. This act of politeness may spare others' feelings, but is it good for me? Perhaps, if it’s once in a while, but not as a daily thing. A lifestyle of making others happy at your own expense is a recipe for disaster. 

We must have the conviction to stick with what we know aligns with our goals and is based on our values. If you’re cutting alcohol, don’t let someway sway you, and if you’re wanting to spend more quality time with your kids or implement a mindfulness practice or learn a new language, carve out that time and treat it like an unalterable appointment in your calendar. 

Do not let others add stressors that you do not agree to, ask for, want, or need. Get comfortable saying "no, thanks" and guard your capacity closely. You have enough to fit in as it is without letting others pile on for you. 

You must also learn to say no to your mind. It will throw all kinds of demands, excuses, urges, and ideas your way, and not all of them are worth listening to. Don't let your mind sabotage you by driving you to take on too much or to do things that aren't in your best interest (Like scrolling in bed. Just say no. Again, sleep is a must.)

I recognize that saying no isn't always easy, especially if you experience guilt, anxiety, or FOMO (fear of missing out). Ask yourself, "Is this really how I want to be spending my precious, limited time, attention, and energy, or am I just afraid of some temporary discomfort?" Then let the answer to that question determine your choices.

Keep in mind that, as with any psychological strength skill, saying no gets easier and smoother with practice, so get to it! Besides, as the saying goes, a yes to something is a no to everything else. So be selective and intentional about what you say yes to, and make peace with the fact that you can't do it all.  


The Binge

My friend Amanda is a master in the kitchen. A regular Friday night dinner feels gourmet, and holidays are off-the-charts. Going to her house last Thanksgiving, I knew that I was going to eat a BUNCH of yummy amazing things. I knew I was going to fill my plate to brimming, enjoy it, then go back for more. 

I ate way more than I needed to, but then I didn't eat again for a while. I gave myself and my poor stomach plenty of time to rest, digest, and recover. 

Our busy modern lives, however, tend to skip the rest and recover part of the process. 

That shortchanges our nervous systems and leads to all the well-known negative effects of chronic stress. So if you do end up taking on a ton, be sure to give yourself adequate time to recover and reset your stress response. 


No Clean Plates 

Finally, the goal isn't to have an empty plate. We'd starve that way! Our souls and our psyches will starve, too, with stressors. We need them. It's a myth that we can live problem-free, stress-free lives. It's a misconception that stress is all bad for you. In fact, under the right circumstances, stress makes us stronger, more resilient, more alive. It's just about balance.




"Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough." - Josh Billings

Dr. Ashley Smith photo

Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

Peak Mind

Peak Mind Co-founders Peak Mind: The Center for Psychological Strength