3 Practical & Applicable Steps for Overcoming Overwhelm
Stressed? Panicked? Too much on your plate?
The results are in, sugar, you may just have a case of Overwhelmitis; easily picked up, “one of those things”.
Yeesh, not nice is it. We've all been there. Knowing that it’s common, however, doesn’t do much to help you when you’re in the thick of it. In fact, it can feel isolating, like you're incapable and down right flat in the face of it.
One of the sneaky tricks of overwhelm is how easily it can sneak up; one minute you’re spinning plates like a pro, the next one right after the other feels like it’s gone crashing to the ground.
Typically, overwhelm can make you feel like you’re failing, even when you’re not. And like many things in life, it matters very little what’s actually happening and much more so your perception of it.
During periods of high stress and intensity, it’s damn near impossible to see the wood for the trees. It feels like EVERYTHING is falling apart and you may just be the only person on the planet who can’t seem to figure *this* out. Chances are, you’re trying to figure *everything out*, likely for more than just yourself.
Even if much of what’s going on if you is usually well within your capabilities, overwhelm is a sure fire signal from your body and brain requesting hold ya fuckin’ horses, cowboy can we slow down.
From work life, relationships and high expectations through to living in a pandemic (did you hear about that?), there are plenty of ways to feel full to the eyeballs with everything you have to do, leaving very little room… for you.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s unlikely you can just drop everything, whether it’s keeping food on your table or literally ensuring little ones survive, the answer of “just let go” feels much more stressful than it does helpful.
So, let’s bring in the cavalry and break down 3 simple ways to ease back some of those stressors and bring in a little more peace for yourself.
LOOK AT THE LITTLES
Kick off by dialling it back. Eh? Sounds counterintuitive at first, so let's explain...
When you’re overwhelmed, one this is clear; you’re doing too much. So, start of by bringing it back to basics. Let's check in on some of your foundations - ask yourself:
How’s my nutrition this week?
Have I been sleeping enough?
Where have I lost sight of “me” in all this?
When it comes to your subconscious, there are some base line needs that have to be met to feel a little chill. These include food, home and general feelings of safety. When these are skewed, it can throw everything else out of whack. Bringing some focus back into ensuring you feel just a little more comfortable with these lays a foundation for greater ease elsewhere.
Now, this isn’t addressed with more pressure; stress over sleep and wellbeing is real. “of course I’m not sleeping well” may be your obvious answer - however, what these questions can do is help bring in some clear action steps that can support what you can control (or have more control over) verses whatever else is going on in your life that you perhaps can’t.
Meal prep so that on busy mornings and evenings you know you’re getting nutritious foods in, rather than a bowl of cereal or cold left overs. This can communicate a strong feeling of self care, especially when you’re feeling drained elsewhere.
Being intentional with your sleep hygiene, setting clear boundaries with your phone and work; set up “night mode” from a certain time, have a box you place your phone in over night and/or ask a friend or family member to help keep you accountable.*
Write a page of journalling a day to just brain dump thoughts and feelings to support your emotional and mental wellbeing, so you can develop your self trust in checking in with yourself.
All of these steps can also support decision making, meaning the brain doesn’t feel as flustered heading into these situations.
*One of the excuses you may notice arising from setting a sleep schedule is that if you find you’re uncomfortable with stopping that you, instead of stopping, keep working in order to placate the discomfort you feel. Instead, look to handle this stress in a different way rather than ploughing on into the work. If you experience stress during the time you’re in “night mode” explore other ways to handle this and learn through it, rather than feeding the belief it is only that resolution of "getting everything done" that can bring you ease.
GET AND SET
Get realistic, set boundaries.
Few people like this option because it sounds a lot like you can’t be the super hero your mind’s racing to be, it also asks a lot in terms of taking responsibility… as in, you have to just admit where your limit is… and stop making every excuse to run yourself ragged for the expense of everyone else…
Okay, I know you may be thinking what does that have to do with responsibility? Well, my sweet, let me tell you: when you set boundaries for yourself, you also have to take responsibility in upholding them.
This is one of the trickiest parts of boundary setting. I often hear “I set the boundary but they didn’t listen, so I guess it just doesn’t work”.
Now, imagine this: it’s 46BC and the Roman Empire begins to invade England, the Celts say “I’d rather you didn’t” but THEN when Emperor Claudius doesn’t say “ok soz” but instead keeps on a’commin’ , the poor ol’ Celts shrug and say “at least we tried, gromit” - well, if they had, it wouldn’t have taken over 40 years to get the job done.
Now, I’m not suggesting what you have going on is akin to empiric expansion, but if your boundaries yield under the slightest push back; you have a house of cards, not a boundaried fortress.
Petitioning someone for their permission to set a boundary, isn’t setting a boundary. It’s still leaving them with the overall authority to dismiss it, while you set yourself back to their bidding.
You will receive pushback on boundaries, and in fact, it’s a sign they’re needed.
As mentioned, ensuring people don’t cross them is your responsibility; you have to believe in your boundary AND the reasons why you’ve set it. You have to take responsibility of upholding it. Someone who wants more from you; be it work, effort, attention etc is not going to uphold the boundary for you.
This is tricky, especially if it’s one of the first times you’ve done something of the sort.
Being realistic and setting boundaries aren’t just in the hard “no’s”, they’re also in inviting others to be clear in what’s being expected. That could look like:
“Hey, this new project looks really interesting, thanks for considering me for it. Could you please let me know a time frame and priority order in relation to X and Y I’m currently working on so I can account for it. At the moment, in order to meet this deadline, another will have to be pushed back.”
“Thank you, let me check my diary and get back to you” (this can help buy you some time to say no regarding other commitments if you’re normally a people pleasing yesser)
“Please don’t speak to me like that"
Or even adding an auto response to emails in the evenings, letting people know what times you generally work and when they can expect a reply.
While many of these boundaries can send a “I can’t do that” chill right up your spine, it’s worth asking yourself why not?
These are all perfectly reasonable interactions, that is of course unless your company believes it OWNS you 24/7 or your partner, parent or friend has their own self focused agenda… in which case, boundaries are going to cause a stir…
Getting realistic requires boundaries because saying “I don’t physically have the time to complete 350 hours of work in a week…” and allowing the consequences of that to… be the consequences is often not what you're working so hard to do. You naturally want to achieve, get things done and please others; but to what cost for yourself?
Frankly, when you don’t have it to give, that isn’t you being a shit employee, or friend, it’s you getting clear on what you absolutely cannot do and refusing to take on the burden of trying beyond your means.
If you didn’t think this was hard enough, let’s go one further; facing this may ask you to face some uncomfortable truths in yourself too. Remember how this may ask you to stop running yourself ragged at the expense of everyone else? Yep. Well, there may be a good reason you do that too… because you think you should, maybe you keep yourself busy from other things or maybe you’re earning your penance. Whatever it is, chances are you’re going to face some difficult truths too in how you’ve let yourself go unchecked for a while.
PLAN FOR IT
Just like focusing on the smaller things earlier, a structure helps your mind.
Creating clarity around what it is that you actually have to do is a game changer, especially when understanding what category they sit in, how much energy they require and how to support yourself in them.
First off, get it all out of your head: Write everything down on a piece of paper, every single thing you’ve got to do AND what you’ve got going on emotionally.
While you may know the difference between “I need to send this report”, “do that food shop”and “get over that ex” your brain doesn’t work in that way; they’re all part of a laundry list it’s carrying around.
From here, compartmentalise into emotional and practical.
Emotional would be things you’re carrying that you feel, tend to be ongoing and are more abstract. Like a pandemic, for example.
Practical would be things that are done in a “step 1, step 2 and step 3” like approach: these don’t require much thought but do need you to so X in order to get Y. Food shop, answer an email etc.
Now, while you cannot delegate emotional work, but you can get support; friends, therapy, coaching, wellbeing practises.
And of the practical; which of these can you delegate?
Alongside the above with getting realistic, which of these practical things can you cross off that simply do not need to be done with the same urgency?
You can even section off, as recommended by productivity expert David Allen, working down as applies:
Order what remains in terms of priority and give yourself the gift of focusing on one task at a time. When you’re food shopping, just food shop. When you’re working on your work, switch off other distractions.
Work in 90 minute intervals with 20 minute breaks. Even if the task only took an hour, give yourself a break after. Your brain and body will thank you.
BONUS: Be mindful that some practical and emotional work will over lap. THIS is where procrastination lives. For example, learning work you’ve never done before or sending an uncomfortable email; maybe that feels challenging? Or makes you feel uneasy? Again, breaking this down into sections and creating a plan is solid gold.
ABOVE ALL, remember this: Asking to be seen as a human being is not too much to ask. With actions like these, not only do you encourage others to see you as human, but you allow yourself to see yourself that way too. Overwhelm is not a badge of honour.
Lastly, know it’s hard. Life over this last year has been exceptionally difficult, and now, a year on from being shut out of normal life, one is expected to adapt to a new world with little to no clue with how to.
Cut yourself some slack and put effort into caring for yourself, keep it really simple; get outdoors, meditate, seek support, keep talking to people.