A Happiness Journey

Overwhelm

I have spoken about many of these techniques in previous posts, but today I wanted to bring it all together in the context of overwhelm. We have a lot going on at the moment, both from a Macro level (Global Pandemic) and Micro level (lots happening at work at the moment, lock down, missing family etc). The word ‘Overwhelm’ has come at me a number of times this week so I would like to address it in a more succinct way to offer some practical guidance on how to manage it.

 

From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings were simply not designed to take in as much information as we are currently taking in. Never before in history have we been subjected to so much input from the outside world. With the technological age has come a barrage of information to onslaught the senses. Once upon a time, and not too long ago, life was much simpler. I’m not saying it was better, but it was certainly simpler. A man and woman paired up, and divvied up the responsibilities. Man went to work and took care of finances, woman raised the kids and took care of the house. All of our information came from 1 source, the leader of the country/tribe/town. Even once we had a newspaper, books, and the radio, we were still limited as to how much we took in and how much we had to consider in our brains. Now we have TV, advertising, radio, smart phones, internet, many different voices, many different opinions, many different people in leadership, many different tribes and rules. The traditional male/female roles are no longer traditional and there are more single adults managing jobs, families, homes, and finances than ever before. We take in more information now in 1 day than someone living in Shakespeare’s time would have taken in over an entire year. It’s A LOT. Chuck on top of that the global pandemic we are all experiencing; we have lack of certainty on a scale we have never seen before, we are all being separated from our tribes and loved ones, forced into solitude, fearing for our health and income. It’s HUGE! No wonder we experience overwhelm.

 

What is Overwhelm?

Overwhelm is slightly different to Stress. It’s a state of being beset by intense emotions, that outweighs your ability to deal with those emotions. Often there are many stressors that contribute to the feeling of overwhelm, and so it is hard to pinpoint one particular event. It all feels like a lot to handle and those overwhelming emotions then bleed into other, seemingly unrelated, areas of your life.

 

Symptoms of Overwhelm

Overwhelm can look like:

Difficulty concentrating

Difficulty focusing your thoughts on one particular thing – scatter brain

Racing mind

Forgetfulness

Mental slowness and brain fog

Confusion

Impaired ability to problem solve

Impaired logical thinking

Increased physiological stress responses in your body such as increased heart rate, increased adrenaline, increased cortisol etc

Feelings of emotions that feel too much to bear.

 

So what can we do about it?

There are so many tools and techniques that we can use to help with the feeling of overwhelm. I discussed some of them in my blog on Stress, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself.

 

Breathe

The first step is to take a breath and offer yourself some kindness and compassion. Your overwhelm is totally justifiable. Your brain has just taken so much on board that it’s become frazzled and it’s just short circuiting a little.

 

By breathing long and slow, focusing on lengthening the exhale so it is longer than the inhale, you are down regulating the Fight/Flight response. When your nervous system is calmer it will enable you to go through the sorting process because your ability to problem solve will have enhanced.

 

Meditate

I have spoken about this at great length, but by meditating, even for a short period of time, you are calming the body and stilling the mind. It creates space between your racing intrusive thoughts and your ability to handle them. You lose the attachment to the thought and stop getting caught up in the story your brain is telling you. Distance from overwhelming thoughts is critical for calming the nervous system. The Dalai Lama says that when he is really busy he mediates twice as long. This is because he knows that Mediation creates space, it doesn’t take it away.

 

The famous 12 step program of the Alcoholics Anonymous use the Serenity Prayer. Whilst I’m not religious I do love a good prayer and i’m not above asking for any help I can get from powers greater than me. What I love about this particular prayer is that it reminds me that some things are beyond our control and somethings aren’t. We can’t control EVERYTHING so we should sort out the things we can control, work on those, and just push all the rest of the crap to one side. It’s taking up way too much valuable headspace.

 

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Now you have your nervous system a little calmer, you have way more capability to sort through the overwhelm.

 

Brain Dumping

This is such a cathartic exercise. Sit down with a notepad and pen, and just start writing. Get it all out of your head and on to paper. Don’t censor it, don’t think about it, just dump every single thought, the big, small and ridiculous, out onto paper.

 

Pinpointing the source of the overwhelm

Once you have your brain dump, put everything that isn’t ridiculous into a list. As you all know I am a HUGE fan of TO DO lists. Once It’s written down in bullet points, break them down further into 4 subsections: Important & Urgent, Urgent, Important, and Delegate. If it’s important & urgent then get these done first. Then prioritise, and delegate. Remember your time is precious. If you’re filling your time with unimportant busy work, ditch it or delegate it. If it’s not important then it’s taking up too much brain space.

 

Working off the Pareto Principle that 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes, what 2 things could you remove right now that would reduce your load by 80%? Do it, you’ll feel so much better. It’s incredible to think that just by removing a couple of big important/urgent things off the TO DO list,  you could lighten your load by a whopping 80%.

 

Set Boundaries on your time and workload

Are you a people pleaser? A yes man (or woman)? Are you the long suffering martyr that everyone can rely on to get stuff done in a pinch? I’ve been a people pleaser all my life and what that means is that I am always putting other people’s needs above my own in order to build my self-worth (more on that another day). Whilst it’s not all bad (I genuinely enjoy caring for others and it helps to make me a good EA) it does come with its issues, and one of them is that I find it really hard to say no to people, hard to set boundaries. It’s a tool I have had to learn, and once started, it gets easier all the time. I now know that ‘No’ or ‘No thank you’ is a complete sentence. Outside of my professional responsibilities, if it’s going to take more energy than I have to give, then I politely refuse. I don’t feel the need to justify my response, I just say ‘No thank you”. Not only do people not care (I was shocked when I discovered that it doesn’t make people like me less or make them annoyed), it shows my inner self, that I am valuable and that I am putting myself first for a change. By setting boundaries and learning how to say no to people, you are also learning how to manage your own time and energy better. You are creating space in your life and removing the need for the damaging resentment that goes hand in hand with always doing more for others than they do for you.

 

Ditch Multitasking

We can’t do it successfully, female or not, so ditch the multitasking! It has been scientifically proven that when we focus on multiple tasks all at once the quality suffers and you don’t actually get more done. In fact we end up doing less. It just leads to overwhelm and when you are juggling too many balls, you stand a greater chance of dropping one. Now you have your task list, just do one thing at a time, and don’t start the next thing until you’ve finished the previous task.

 

Time Chunking

I spoke before on the Pomodoro technique where you break tasks down into 25 minute chunks in order to retain more information. Whilst this is a great technique for retaining information it’s also a great way of getting out of procrastination, and getting a job done. Regardless of the task, just set your timer for 25 mins and get started. It’s much more manageable to spend 25 mins doing something and then having a break. It makes the task much less daunting.

 

Challenge your Perfectionism

We throw around the term ‘Perfectionist’ like it’s a badge of honour. What it is, is a hindrance. It shackles us from starting things. It makes us self critical and judgemental of ourselves and others. Instead of waiting to be perfect, start from where you are. The best way to learn your trade or find your voice is to start doing/using it. ‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’ and ‘Good’ is Good enough! So stop waiting until you’re perfect at something to start something, and if you’ve started something but haven’t finished it because you want it to be perfect, ask yourself, is it good enough?

 

Challenge your assumptions

Often we have these grand assumptions in our brain that simply aren’t true. “I’m the only person who can do this job”, “If I don’t hold everything together it will all fall apart”. These big assumptions that we hold onto are creating restrictions in our brain. If we released ourselves from these faulty assumptions and beliefs, what we will discover is that many other people can do the job, and the world won’t fall apart without us. Maybe we should learn to delegate and let some things go? The world never actually falls apart. Fortunately for us, none of us are in control of the fate of millions, so when we have to delegate, or push something non-critical off our to do list, nothing bad actually happens. People don’t die. The world doesn’t collapse. We just created a little more headspace for ourselves.

 

Turn off Distractions and Notifications

When we have too much going on in our brains, having the constant waves of information intruding into our lives, from notifications and distractions, just takes up valuable space on the brain hard drive. Do what you can to minimise these by switching off the notifications on your phone so you become less reactive. Set aside time in your day to check emails and anything else that’s important but make it so you choose the time, not your phone. When you have alerts going off, your brain never truly relaxes because it’s on high alert, quietly anticipating the next ping that could come in and demand your immediate attention. By switching everything off, you are creating a safe space for your brain to stand down and you are taking back control of your time.

 

Emotional Overwhelm

I’ve been talking a lot recently about how to manage our emotions and when we’re in a state of emotional overwhelm, it’s a really good time to start putting some of these things into practice.

 

Emotions are just energy in motion, vibrations in your body. They are physiological responses, chemical reactions, in your body as a result of a thought. If you were to describe to a Martian from space, who has never felt an emotion before, what anxiety feels like, you might talk about the tightness in your solar plexus, the shortness of breath, the quickening of your heart, the jelly like feeling in your muscles, the tingling of your skin, and your inability to think straight. That Martian might think to him or herself “well that doesn’t sound too bad”. Interestingly we might describe falling in love the exact same way, isn’t that fascinating that we would describe the worst and the best feeling in the exact same way? Now if you knew that the worst thing that could possibly happen to you, is that you were going to feel an emotion, would that be a fate worse than death? Could you manage that? I reckon you could.

 

So lets talk about managing that. The reason we find emotions so hard is because we’ve been brought up to resist them. How about, instead of labelling it bad and doing your best to resist it, you sit with it. Let it be in your body and just be present with it. Sit with your eyes closed and feel the tightness and the tingling, and name it. Say “hello anxiety old friend, pull up a chair, I will sit with you whilst you’re visiting”. Once you’ve allowed yourself to feel it for the day, make the decision to move it on. It is only energy after all. Instead of wallowing in it for days / months/ years, decide to clear it out. You can do this by moving your body and changing your thoughts. As I’ve spoken about in great depth before, if your thoughts create your emotions, then think a new thought. Take responsibility for what you can control and think something else. As Wayne Dyer says, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. When we step back from our thoughts and create some space between us and them, we can start to see them for the nonsense that they are. Just incessant internal chatter that swings from pole to pole at a moments notice. They are neither consistent, helpful or friendly most of the time so it would benefit all of us to look at them objectively and decide what we would like to think. Ask yourself, does this thought serve me? Does it empower me or make me feel small? If it feels like your inner critic is doing all the work in your head, gently ask them to step aside, whilst you entertain your inner best friend for a while.

 

Stop taking things personally

This is something I learned from the Four Agreements and you can go back to re-read that if its helpful, but stop taking everything so personally. What other people think of you is none of your business. They are just looking at you through their own unique lens formed from their own unique set of circumstances. Their opinion is theirs and theirs alone and has no bearing on you whatsoever. What they think says everything about them and nothing about you so stop taking everything so personally. People are so caught up in their own personal stories and dramas that’s its rarely about you anyway, we just assume it is. And just because they think it, does NOT make it true anyway.

 

Stop judging

We are all doing the best we can with the tools we have. Stop judging yourself harshly for not being a super hero, you’re not perfect, no one is, so cut yourself some slack. You’re having a human experience and humans make mistakes, allow yourself to make some and be gentle with yourself. That goes for others too! We’re just as harsh on others as we are on ourselves sometimes and we expect everything to be done the way we would do it. Other people are dealing with their own stuff that we are not privy to. And like us, they are also doing the best they can with the tools they have (which are more than likely different tools to yours so again, don’t judge) so afford them the benefit of your grace and compassion (whether you feel they deserve it or not).

 

You can’t solve a problem in the same environment, and with the same thinking, that created the problem in the first place.

Instead of beating yourself up against the same familiar brick wall, try something else. Break that pattern. If you have a way of doing things that doesn’t get you the results you desire, then do something else. And keep trying until you hit the jack pot. Failure is just feedback so use that feedback to change your approach and try again. If the environment you’re living in is not conducive to the life you want to live then change your environment. In a laboratory the scientists can determine how well a specimen will thrive, by altering the culture in the Petri dish. We are no different. If we want to thrive then we have to create a nontoxic environment that’s conducive to health, growth and vitality.

 

Give the human flesh suit you’re wearing a fighting chance at thriving. If you’re not sleeping well, eating crap, and engaging in additive behaviours (whether it’s social media, shopping, gossiping, moaning, smoking, sugar, gambling, drinking or drugs) then your body and your biochemistry can NOT thrive. If you’re overwhelmed and you feel like you’re under attack from your own brain and emotions then the best thing you can do is make sure you’re sleeping really well. Once you’ve nailed your sleep look at your nutrition. If you were fuelling your car with chip fat instead of unleaded petrol then you wouldn’t be surprised if it started to run really badly. Your body is the same, so fuel it with the good stuff and it will run so much better. We are now beginning to understand just how important our gut microbiome is for mental health. Information we didn’t have before has now come to light that proves that we make many of our happy hormones in our guts and when we eat the wrong foods, and we kill off our good gut bacteria, that causes us anxiety and depression.  Food for thought (double pun, love it).

 

A problem shared is a problem halved

Phone a friend, ask them to hold space for you whilst you speak openly and vulnerably about how you’re feeling. Explain that you don’t need them to offer advice or suggestions, you just need an ear for a minute. Being able to speak it all out loud is like the brain dumping exercise, with the added benefit of human connection.

 

 

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