Ever feel like you’re ‘drowning in it’? When everything is too much and you don’t have the time, space or mental energy for all that’s happening? Some people say their overwhelm appears out of the blue. Others say it creeps up; they can feel it approaching and do whatever they can to keep it away. And others, don’t have much overwhelm at all - although the people in their lives might be the ones who are bottling up all the pressure, and keeping things under control.
Research from the Mental Health Foundation in the UK showed that of more than 4,500 people surveyed, 74% had felt so stressed they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. The flow on effects of overwhelm aren’t good for us with respondents reporting they ate too much or unhealthily (46%), started or increased drinking (29%) and started or increased smoking (16%). Psychological effects included feeling depressed (51%) and feeling anxious (61%). Even greater effects like feelings of loneliness, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and feelings have also been reported.
There is no long-term benefit to battling our way through overwhelm. In reality, it’s a sign that something is out of balance and needs to change. What can we do?
First, understand that different things contribute to our overwhelm. Consider if your overwhelm is coming from your emotions, your workload or an overload of information. And it could even be a mix of all three. Then, do these things to help reduce the duration and intensity of overwhelm:
- Take note. When someone says they’re overwhelmed, listen, enquire, support. Have a conversation with them, find out what is overwhelming them and how they are feeling. Avoid the empty platitudes of ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine’. For the overwhelmed one, this doesn’t offer much help.
- Pause for a moment. If you’re experiencing overwhelm, it’s important to pause and get some perspective. You can stand up from your desk, leave the room, go outside, or change your ‘state’, your body’s physical position. This helps the brain by providing you with better resources, ideas and capabilities to deal with the pressure. It breaks the hold that overwhelm can have.
- Get it out of your head. If you’re juggling too much, write it down. Spend a few minutes emptying the contents of your head. What is it you’re thinking of, worried about or stressing over? Externalising information out of our head stops it spinning inside our head.
- Juggle less. It’s common for us to be juggling and multitasking many things at once. This doesn’t make overwhelm better, even though we hope it might. Instead, look at what you really need to get done today and put other tasks aside. Get on with the most important task and get it done.
- Stop starting, start finishing. This saying from software developers is wise advice. If you keep starting new tasks, it becomes impossible to finish them. Instead of starting new things and inviting overwhelm in, ask it to take a seat and wait. Finish something on your list so you get that inspiring reward of positive progress that you’ve completed something.
Overwhelm is our body’s way of saying our balance is out. Rather than pushing on through the emotions, workload or information you’re trying to conquer, pause, write things down, and focus on finishing key tasks.
We are highly capable humans, able to change how we respond and how we respond to overwhelm is a perfect example. When we stop doing the things that feed it or increase it, it can recede… just like the flood waters after a deluge. And keep in mind that even if you don’t experience the ‘drowning in it’ feeling of everything being too much, that others in your life, in your family, circle of friends or work colleagues may. Keep an eye out for the rising waters of overwhelm – for your own wellbeing and of those closest to you.
Who is Lynne Cazaly?
Lynne is the author of 'Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A Practical Guide to Outsmarting Overwhelm' ($29.95), is a speaker and award-winning author on new ways of working. She helps individuals and organisations think and work in ways that are more productive, collaborative, creative and effective. Find out more at www.lynnecazaly.com
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