I recently heard myself saying to my partner “everything feels so hard today… there’s too much to do – I don’t know where to start!” When I voiced this out loud, I realised that I was feeling overwhelmed. It had kind of snuck up on me; I’d been in my post-holiday bliss and easing back into work but in that week leading up to me feeling overwhelmed, work had suddenly gone back to “usual” levels, there was a family drama playing out and I wasn’t ready for this level of intensity, so quickly.
When I reflected on the days prior, I noticed that I’d been feeling irritable, I hadn’t been sleeping as well as usual, I was worrying about some things and I was procrastinating on some key tasks – which was feeding into the worry – and I had brain fog.
Have you ever felt like this? Maybe, you’ve even been having a similar experience as you’re getting back into the swing of work. Or perhaps you’ve even noticed that your staff or colleagues might be experiencing something like this?
Overwhelm seems to be an all-too-common result of the complexities of the world we live in today, not to mention, the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 virus which can have our brain’s and nervous system running on alert, in the background.
So, what is overwhelm?
Overwhelm is experienced in the brain, the nervous system and the body. When you feel overwhelmed, it can occur for some different reasons:
- You may have over-taxed your brain. Your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) – the wonderful, logical and conscious thinking part of your brain – is sensitive. In fact, Neuroscientists often refer to this as the Goldilocks Effect. To function optimally your PFC needs rest, good nourishment and re-fueling. So, if you’ve been pushing yourself too hard or for too long, not eating or drinking well, not getting good sleep, not doing activities that nourish you, then your PFC can power down, like an overused battery. When you think about what you’ve got on, your brain lumps it all together in one overwhelming bundle.
- You may have triggered your internal survival response. When this occurs your PFC is temporarily switched off while you’re in the fight/flight/freeze response. In this state you can only focus on survival tasks, you’re operating on instinctual behaviours, and your brain isn’t available for more complex activities (or sometimes, not even just usual day to day activities). Stress, shock, a sense of feeling threatened in some way, can all activate this response.
How can you overcome overwhelm?
There’s a number of different ways you can overcome overwhelm. Here’s seven key principles and strategies to work with:
1. Notice the overwhelm when it’s happening
Take a step back from your internal experience and acknowledge that this is how you’re feeling. Once you can bring this awareness and take a step back to observe your experience you now have choice about what to do with it.
2. Take a break!
Trying to push through overwhelm or push through the work or beating yourself up for not being on top of things, is NOT a useful strategy. Get up and grab a water or a cuppa, get outside, take a walk, connect with a friend etc. TIP: taking a “break” on social media, won’t help the overwhelm.
3. Take care of your emotions and your energy.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, calm down your emotions through breathing techniques, mindfulness, Havening Techniques®, voicing how you’re feeling etc. If your energy is low go for a walk or run, do some quick cardio (even a few star jumps can help), listen to energising music, move your body, drink water, eat some healthy protein, take some supplements like zinc.
4. Unbundle the lump!
Get all of the “to do’s” out of your head and get them into perspective. Map them out on a piece of paper, a whiteboard (I do this with clients) or some other device; I personally like to do a mindmap – a diagram is easier for your brain to process, than a list.
5. Make some conscious choices and coach yourself.
Get real on deadlines and responsibility – distinguish between wants and needs (imposed by you or others). For example, you might want to get that task done today, but it doesn’t need to be done until two days’ time. Where are you putting unrealistic self-imposed deadlines on yourself? Guess what, other people can do this to you as well. Here’s some great coaching questions you can ask yourself to help you make informed choices (Tip: if you’re a leader you can help your people feel less overwhelmed by asking them these questions):
- “what am I taking responsibility for, that isn’t mine to be responsible for?”
- “What’s driving this timeline?” or to ask others, “I’m juggling some different priorities, what’s the latest I can get this to you?”
- “which one task, when done, would have the most impact on the others?”
- “what’s the easiest thing for me to do” (just getting something done can help you feel like you’re getting ahead)
- “what’s the main thing I’ve been procrastinating over – what’s one small thing I can do to progress it?” (getting started on something small can get you into the zone)
- “where would I benefit from asking for help? Who can I ask?”
- “which one would I like to start with?”
6. Stop trying to multi-task…
Your brain can’t do it anyway! Use the Pomodoro Technique to manage your focus and energy. This is one of my favourite, and proven, techniques for focussing your attention and getting through tasks.
7. Celebrate your progress
Set some mini progress goals and do a little celebration (I like doing a chair dance!) or have a small reward for yourself (like a nice cuppa, or some positive reinforcement on what you’ve done). Don’t save up your celebration until the end. Mini celebrations will help to energise you and give a dopamine boost for motivation.
Reduce overwhelm from happening
To reduce overwhelm from happening in the first place prioritise your self-care activities, know your signs/symptoms and bring awareness to them early, manage your stress levels, get real with what you can achieve in the time you have, be in communication with others about what you’ve got on and ask for and accept help. Simple, but not always easy to apply.
If you need some support in overcoming overwhelm, then book in a coaching session, and I’ll be happy to help you out.
Coaching Essentials for Leaders
If you want to learn how to coach your people through overwhelm, and other challenges, then check out the Coaching Essentials for Leaders Programme