“It’s all too much” … How to Take Control of Your Mental Load

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Licensed psychologist and wellness consultant

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” -Lena Horne

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the ceaseless demands of daily life? Let me share a recent Saturday experience that might sound familiar.

It was a typical Saturday afternoon: my kids had a morning filled with sports, followed by a birthday party, and were now gearing up for a sleepover. As the noise around me dimmed, my internal voice took over. “I need to respond to those emails. I never cleaned up that mess, and now the dog is making it worse. Did I get gifts for tomorrow? I need to order those supplies for school.” This inner chatter continued for a few minutes. The result? A pit in my stomach, a feeling of complete overwhelm, and a sense of being stuck in place. Then, finally, my inner psychologist (hi, Dr. Carolyn) decided to show up and stop the party.

Welcome to mental load.

What is mental load?

Mental load is the invisible work that happens behind the scenes, sometimes thought of as the cognitive labor that handles multitude and often competing demands. It’s like the endless mental checklist of tasks, from remembering family birthdays to keeping track of bills and appointments. Although it is primarily used when talking about parenting in relation to mothers, it can be thought of beyond the realm of parenthood. This work goes unnoticed and is highly undervalued. In relationships, when one person carries the majority of the mental load, it can create significant resentment.

Ways to Manage the Mental Load

I won’t pretend that you can simply pause life and hit reset. So, let’s explore ways to manage your mental load while still living a full, and likely chaotic, life.

Brain Dump. Write down everything on your mind. Set a timer for 5 minutes if you need some structure. This is like when I jotted down everything from ‘call the dentist’ to ‘finalize next week’s presentation’. Just write, without judgment or attempts to manage the thoughts.

Take a Sensory Break. Take a break from the literal mess and do something that engages your senses. Try a mindful meditation or taking a walk outside. Focus on calming your nervous system.

Re-examine with Compassion. Re-examine everything you wrote down from the lens of a supportive friend. Imagine you’re the friend sitting alongside you whispering in your ear.

– Sort through the list and cross out anything totally random.

– The critical task: identify any judgments or negative self-evaluations. For instance, “I always forget to do xyz. I never get the laundry done. I bet other people are more organized than me.” Transform these thoughts into positive affirmations. For example, replace ‘I always forget things’ with ‘I remember and manage many important tasks every day’. Discard those negative thoughts.

– Look at what remains — is there anything you’d like to do that will take less than 5 minutes? Do it! Everything else, put on a clear list that lives outside your brain (so it’s managed by you rather than managed from within you).

Reframe the Mental Load. Enter a space that typically triggers your mental load. Look at the clutter as just objects, describing them without judgment. “Oh look, a striped shirt and a purple shoe. A piece of paper. A blue line on the wall.” This shift in perspective can help make your mental load feel less personal and more objective. It takes practice but is incredibly beneficial.

Above all, remember, you are not your mental load. You are not inadequate or unproductive. You are a human being, living life amidst everyday stressors, doing your absolute best to stay afloat. The things around you are merely mementos from your journey — some to keep, some to let go. Embrace the hard work of being human — the toughest job of all. This is worth recognizing and celebrating. Every day you navigate this complexity is a testament to your resilience. Let’s embrace this journey together.

A few of my favorite resources related to mental load:

How to Keep House While Drowning (relatable and simple reframes that will shift the way you approach to-do’s … you will return to this book over and over again for a sigh of relief)

Fair Play (strategies that will help you share the mental load with your partner and reduce resentment)

Visual Timer (for those 5 minute pockets of time – I own over 10 of these!)

Until next time,
Dr. Carolyn

Caught in anxious patterns like people pleasing or perfectionism?