Overwhelm. That sinking, drowning, paralysing, most disempowering of feelings; which ironically is usually brought on by us trying to be super human and doing ALL THE THINGS. Overwhelm is a feeling I know all too well. As someone with diagnosed ADD and dyslexia, overwhelm is never far away from me. I am very good at working on multiple projects at lightening speed, but my poor brain and body can’t always catch up, and I’m easily distracted; so unless I am very mindful of my schedules and mental health hygiene routine (which is an important part of self-care) I know I am at risk of overwhelm. Add into the fact that as a therapist I have to be as cool, calm and focused as I can be for my clients, I have to make sure I have lots of strategies in place to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed.
You don’t have to suffer from ADD, or any other learning difference to be at risk from overwhelm – though certain learning differences can make you more prone – anyone at all can suffer from it and it can be made worse by depression, anxiety and stress. People are also at risk from becoming overwhelmed because of life events, such as looming exams, new parenthood, bereavement or a change in job. It can make you feel panicky, depressed, scared, and even trigger physical symptoms such as IBS, insomnia and stress headaches. It can make you feel manic or paradoxically catatonic, where you feel you have so much to do, all you feel capable of is shutting down.
There are ways to cope though, here are my top ten strategies for coping with overwhelm, or even catching it before it gets a hold of you.
It sounds so obvious but you would be amazed at how important it is to breathe well and often. When we panic or ‘flap’ as I call it, we tend to breathe much shallower, which keeps us in our ‘primitive’ anxious brain and stops us from thinking clearly. Taking five to ten minutes to just breathe properly (slowly and deeply, through the nose if you can), will calm the mind, make our brains temporarily go into an alpha state, which makes us feel calmer, clearer and more focused again. Do this a few times a day, every day and overwhelm will be much less likely.
2. Go outside
When I see smokers, they often question how they will cope without that cigarette break they take at work when they are feeling overwhelmed. The truth is it is not the cigarette that calms you down (in fact, nicotine is actually a stimulant that increases your heart rate), it’s stepping outside and away from the situation. There is something that going outside, especially into nature if possible, does that has a similar effect on the brain as mediation or deep breathing. Try not to stare at your phone, but get absorbed in your surroundings. If I start to get overwhelmed when I work, I grab Tiny Therapy Dog ™ and head up to The Mound (woody, field area near my house) for a leg stretch.
Chances are, if your getting overwhelmed it’s because you are trying to do too much at once. Sit down and see what can go, or be done later. Your friend is not going to mind if you don’t make a homemade dish for her party, you can grab some nibbles on the way from a shop – seriously, she doesn’t care, she’s probably suffering overwhelm as well right now. If you have a deadline, or a child that needs caring for, that’s the priority. For me, my priorities are my clients first and foremost and then making sure the dog is fed and walked. After that I can put a few things, including this blog, on the back burner until I feel ready to deal with them.
4. Make a list
To me, list making is therapy in itself. I have a monthly list, a weekly list and a daily list. The good thing about lists (apart from the great feeling of ticking things off them) is that they break your days down into manageable chunks, and can help with prioritising. Write a list of everything you would like to achieve that day, but highlight only three things that you definitely will. After that everything is a bonus and you’ll feel more of a sense of achievement than overwhelm.
5. The right tools
I am a stationary-aholic. Now many people organise their life through amazing apps and online business tools. I cannot do that, but if you are a techno-wizard then there are apps to help you keep on top of life. I however am an old-fashioned girl and keep organised with Post-its, notebooks, Sharpies and a wall-planner. All ideas for writing, blogging, client worksheets, gets written either on my inspiration wall or in my notebook. My calendar and notebook keep my clients scheduled well and everything is colour coded. You’ve got to have a system. Find yours.
6. Take a break
Take PROPER breaks. Not ‘I’ll just watch one Youtube video or have a quick browse of Facebook’ because this is the quickest way into the procrastination spiral, which makes overwhelm a lot worse as it melts time before your very eyes. This takes discipline and I hold my hands up as someone who finds this as tricky as the next person. But we still need breaks. So schedule proper ones. Either for a walk, a cuppa in another room, a lie down with a relaxation/hypnosis track, rich deep short relaxation techniques that are proper breaks from work. You can find more on that here.
7. Breaking things down
When we get overwhelmed, we tend to go into the negative part of our brain, which is very good at distorted, ‘black and white’ thinking. We start making very absolute statements to ourselves such as “I’ll never get this finished”, “I’m such a failure” “I can’t cope”. After breathing and a break, break it all down. What can you do realistically, what can’t you do, what can you do if you get some help, or change your strategy? Spending time working things out and breaking things down encourages us back into our intellectual mind, where we can think in colour and see things a lot more rationally and clearly.
Oh so important. This is something that should be on your list everyday. Having a mental health hygiene routine, eating well, sleeping well and spending time with others, or conversely having time alone is going to help stop overwhelm creeping up in the first place. There have been many times when I’ve been verging on a meltdown only to realise that my blood sugar levels are low. Before you get overwhelmed, think: am I tired, am I hungry, when did I last have a shower? These are the things we can forget about, especially if studying or working to a deadline or looking after children. As the old adage says ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’, so make sure your needs are getting met before you deal with anything, or anyone else.
This one has saved me over the years. Being the ‘strong independent woman’ that we’re all supposed to be these days I was always loathed to ask for help and would rather get myself into a right pickle over technology (as I mentioned, not my strong point), or DIY or even fixing my bike than admit I needed help. I would always feel I had to do things myself even if I didn’t have the skill or inclination. Then I realised that I could take a huge amount of pressure off myself if I delegated. There are things I can do and enjoy doing, such as cooking, baking and editing. I will now often skill swap with someone, some proof reading for some DIY or make a friend dinner if they will help me sort out my computer. I am even a lot happier to pay professionals to get involved these days. Don’t try to do it all, get some help. Local Facebook groups are a great place to find skill swaps if you haven’t the money to pay people to help you.
10. Be kind to yourself
The number one thing making you overwhelmed? You, believing your own negative narrative. You are only human, everyone gets overwhelmed; everyone has days off, everyone at some point shuts their computer down and crawls under the duvet with a tub of ice cream. It is not the end of the world if your house isn’t clean, or you have to cancel party plans because you really just need to sleep. These things happen, but the emotional drain and anxiety comes from how mean we are to ourselves when we’re already overwhelmed, the unnecessary guilt and shame. Next time you’re feeling like you’re getting overwhelmed, say to yourself: “I am feeling overwhelmed, this is okay, I am okay, I can turn this around”. And put the brakes on that cycle of negative thinking. Getting overwhelmed is one thing. Getting overwhelmed about getting overwhelmed is something you can at least make a vow to put an end to. Odds are, actually, you’re doing just fine.