Facing Down Overwhelm


As I sit here writing this blog post I can't help but feel a little overwhelmed because today I have loads to do and lots of things on my mind. Thoughts are racing, ideas forming and time is flying away from me.

Throughout my working life as a chemist and a probation officer, there were many times when feeling overwhelmed was a regular occurrence. I am sure it has been the same for you from time to time. Overwhelm is very common in both our personal and professional lives.

 For me, when I am in a state of overwhelm, it is as though I have a tornado in my head. At first, it is slowly forming, turning and picking up things as it does so. You can see and hear the thoughts, ideas, self-talk and information, swirling round but you can't grab hold of any of them. More thoughts flood in, together with negative emotions which feed even greater energy into the rotation which then seems to just be getting bigger and faster, the more you try to get control of it. You know you just need to grab hold of one thing, but everything is going too fast, you can't focus, and this just makes things worse.

There are many contributing factors to the state of feeling overwhelmed.

  • Constant interruptions: We live in an on-demand society, being bombarded by various demands upon our attention and time. Emails, notifications, phone calls, conversations, additional activities, the dog wanting to play, the kids running around the house or fighting over the TV. There might always be something or someone placing a demand on you. These can all serve to constantly interrupt our flow of attention on the task at hand.
  • Commitments & expectations: Taking on too many commitments can leave you going beyond the point of being stretched in a positive way to a sense of overwhelm as the number of commitments are too great, placing a strain on you. This is coupled with then both internal and external expectations you experience because how you feel you are, how you want to be seen and other people's previous experiences of you.
  • Emotional state: Feeling stressed or anxious can lead and compound to becoming overwhelmed. Equally some unexpected event can have an impact on your emotional state, be it feeling worried, upset or angry or being out of control, for example.
  • Tiredness: Not getting enough sleep and being physically exhausted can affect how we process things and how we respond to daily life.
  • Mindset: Whilst some people might thrive on pressure, there are others that struggle to deal with it. The pressure can be down to the high standards you might hold or an inability to say no. Sometimes we place more pressure on ourselves than others do.
  • Time: At the end of the day, there is only a finite amount of time. We choose what to fill it with but, when it reaches a point that we are too busy, our feelings of overwhelm build and we lose all perspective. We cannot focus, we don't plan, and we don't act.

People's experience of overwhelm is different from person to person. Maybe you can deal with an extra activity being added to your day. Maybe the addition of anything else, no matter how small, is enough for the tornado to touch down and cause a path of mass destruction. It may differ depending on the context, whether in your personal life or at work. Whatever the setting there are ways in which you can reduce the sense of overwhelm and reclaim that focus.

Within a work setting:

  1. Switch off distractions & interruptions: Whilst this might be sacrilegious and you may not have done it in some time, turn off your phone. Close email programmes and browsers. Log out of all social media platforms. Put a do not disturb sign on your door. Create your best "do not talk to me right now" face.
  2. Brain dump: Get a big piece of paper or a notebook and spend some time just writing everything thing down that is going on in your head. Start to reduce the tornado's intensity by pulling stuff out, one thought at a time.
  3. Sift: Once you have done this, it's time to start sifting through, getting rid of anything that is external to you and, therefore. beyond your control. Cross out every single thing that you are not responsible for.
  4. Sort: Now you have cut through some of the noise, it is time to start sorting through what you have left. Prioritise, focus on the now and create a to-do-list. Michael Hyatt encourages you to focus on the Big 3; put the 3 things which are the most important or have the greatest impact at the top of your list and focus on those things first. Keep prioritising until you have gained control and have done everything you need to.

Within your personal life, it is also possible to use the above technique to move out of overwhelm but it might not always be practical. As an alternative, try this technique:

  1. Switch off distractions & interruptions: You don't want anything further being added when you are already feeling overwhelmed so switching off devices is still a useful step.
  2. Take a break: Change the energy by changing your emotional state. Take a break, go for a walk, sit down and just take a moment. It doesn't need to be long, you need a moment to breathe and to create an opportunity in which the energy is not so intense.
  3. Focus on the now: Be present and focus on what is right in front of you. Deal with that issue there and then. You'll gain a sense of achievement and allow you to take back control. Don't multitask, it is just going to keep you in overwhelm. Slow the tornado down so that you are tackling overwhelm one step at a time.

I didn't plan on covering this topic today when I was planning out this series of blogs but, given I could feel a tornado beginning to spin in my head, it seemed appropriate for me to deal with what was in front of me and highlight some steps which might help you the next time you are feeling overwhelmed.