What to Do About Overwhelm

It’s an awful feeling. For me, it tends to show up as a hollow sensation in my chest, with an ugly flutter of fear.

Too much on the list

I notice all-or-nothing, hopeless thoughts. “It’s impossible to catch up. Too much is going on. Things are out of control. I’m not meeting my obligations.” 😳

This frantic state is unfortunately a common experience for me, and recently even more common — I’ve been recovering from cataract surgery, which has slowed me down by making it much more difficult to read or use the computer for the past two months 😵

Yes, cataract surgery, and my coaching business, and the delivery of a shipment of our old junk that has been in storage. Not homelessness or a family crisis or terrible illness. 😑 I can even start to beat myself up for this — I “shouldn’t” feel overwhelmed. What’s wrong with me?

That question won’t lead anywhere good. Instead, I can get curious. What is going on? I have a human brain that evolved to be alert for threats and problems (otherwise my ancestors wouldn’t have survived). And it seems that my inborn stress response can’t tell the difference between a hungry pack of wolves and a pileup of 237 emails in my inbox 😝

I notice what I do when I feel overwhelmed. I jump around from one thing to another, often completely irrelevant tasks like cleaning the crumbs out of the silverware drawer 😐

Temptations of the week

And I desperately seek ways to escape this uncomfortable feeling and relax for a moment. This often involves consuming something that isn’t on my plan; this past week it was Glühwein and Mini-Wheats right out of the box. Overwhelm isn’t the only reason that I break away from my eating plan, but it’s a common one.

Fortunately, during the past few years (especially during the pandemic), I’ve learned other ways besides consuming wine and cereal to shift my thoughts and emotions. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve found some strategies that work. Here are four of them in case they’re helpful for you too!  

Strategy #1: Don’t stop moving

With “too many” things to do, it might sound reasonable to cut back on exercise. But physical movement is a necessity, like sleep and nourishing food and brushing our teeth – cutting back on these makes us less productive, not more!

I’m often tempted to skip weightlifting or Zumba class to “get more done.” But these activities, or walking, hiking or biking (nature: extra bonus), dancing (in my home office), swimming, or doing active housework or yard work give me a much-needed mood boost, more energy and a way of releasing tension (taking literally the good advice to “shake it off”).  The time I’ve “lost” by doing these things comes back to me with interest.

When I exercise in the morning, I do fewer of those weird distracting things, like play Sudoku 😅

– My friend and colleague Susan Shirley

A quick note (especially to myself): too much exercise can be counterproductive and end up adding to our stress (and injury risk). One or two hours of moderate exercise, plus plenty of walking and moving around during the day, is the right level for me.

The author and her bike after a workout at the gym
This feels better than Mini-Wheats

Strategy #2: Notice and be kind

Every time I notice that yucky frantic feeling in myself, it’s actually a positive opportunity. It’s a moment of mindfulness: I’m aware of the discomfort in my body and those panicky thoughts.

I’ve found it helpful to pause and notice, the way I might finally turn toward a child who has been tugging at me while I work. With both the child and myself, the first temptation is to react with impatience and annoyance. But I catch myself (usually) and remind myself to drop in to my physical self, take a deep breath, maybe put a hand on my heart. I notice the awful, empty, scared sensations and the strong urge to escape from them. I notice that there are at least two parts of me: the panicky part, and another part that is capable (sometimes) of directing kindness and compassion to this human who cares so much about getting things done, mostly for the benefit of others.

This brings up the topic of forgiving ourselves, in my case for the Glühwein or the Mini-Wheats, or especially for the 10 things still on my to-do list at the end of the day. Again I seem to have two parts: the one who “failed,” and the one who has the choice to judge harshly, to be indulgent (“go ahead and drink more wine, it doesn’t matter”), or to provide understanding, love and encouragement.

I’d love to share your lunch

This balance can be hard to find in relation to myself, but it’s easy to see with my cat Dansby. He’s very interested in my food, and if I leave something out he is likely to get into it. He once ate half a stick of butter and was sick for two days, and he’s even broken into a pizza box. I’m not angry with him, but I also don’t give him free access to butter and pizza. I love him and want to support his well-being, and I recognize that some of his impulses run counter to that. He has traits of a British Shorthair, and I’m imagining his ancestors living in warehouses on the London docks, foraging for any food they could find in order to survive. And what about my own genetic heritage?

Yes, he broke into the box and nibbled on the pizza crust

I wish that this pausing and noticing and loving and forgiving would make the awful frantic feelings dissolve immediately. They don’t. But I feel less alone, like having someone hold my hand during a scary movie. And each time I practice noticing this overwhelmed feeling, I’m developing the skill of stepping back from my “I’ll never catch up” thoughts to create space for more reasonable and helpful ones.

Strategy #3: Reframe from “I must” to “I want”

With nearly all of the factors that tend to cause overwhelm, we actually do have more choice than we may think. It’s possible to abandon our family members, quit our jobs, and let our homes fall into disrepair. But we don’t want to.

And what if I suddenly had to spend the rest of December in the hospital, and I couldn’t do anything I’d planned? 😲 The world would somehow manage and go on. And ironically, by stressing out we are more likely actually to end up in the hospital, through an accident caused by rushing or a stress-related illness.

Thoughts like “I have to,” “I need to” and “I should” whip up more frantic feelings in me, because they focus on the (often imagined) expectations of others and the (supposedly) dire consequences of not completing my to-do list. Just changing the mental phrase — I WANT to get my blog post written this week – brings a feeling of relief and empowerment. (Yes, it’s pretty funny that I put pressure on myself about writing a blog post on the feeling of overwhelm 🤨)

For the shipment of stuff from storage I’m dealing with, I don’t have to sell the vintage maple desk or find someone who really wants my old German-language material. I could donate or trash it all. What’s driving me is my own values of recycling and finding a good use for things. Honoring and celebrating that can help shift me out of overwhelm and into appreciation.

Strategy #4: Ask good questions

Buddhist masters, therapists, life coaches and many others know that the right question can often inspire a powerful shift in mindset. Here are a whole bunch of good questions I am learning to ask myself (often in the shower, and sometimes in my journal):

  • What can I give myself permission to let go of?
  • What would I tell a friend who is feeling the way I am now? 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩
  • What is “enough”? How will I know when I’ve done enough?
  • What is the one thing I can do today that will make everything easier? (Love that book, thank you Teresa for recommending it!)
  • What is most important to me?
  • What am I missing when I focus primarily on my to-do list?
  • What unnecessary expectations am I putting on myself?
  • What can I do today which is enjoyable and also good for me?
  • Who can help me?
  • Am I putting others’ interests above my own? How can I create a fairer balance?
  • It’s pretty much certain that no matter what happens, someone will be disappointed (including me). Can I learn to live with that?
  • Who would I be if I had no obligations?

Too often, my thoughts and emotions appear to me like a stirred-up jar of muddy water. Pausing to ask these questions and listen for an answer helps the mud settle. As more clarity emerges, I start to remember why I do what I do – not a faraway ultimate goal but what really motivates me in the present moment. Serving my clients. Being connected with my family and friends (and cat). Taking good care of my body. Expressing my creativity. Acting with kindness and care for others. Communicating empowering and useful messages (I hope).

I do some of these, in my imperfect human way, every day. My mind can always think of more “shoulds” for me as a “human doing.” But as a human being, I am already enough. I can learn (gradually) to simply rest, right there.

Do you already use any of these strategies? Is this post helpful for your own personal brand of overwhelm? Let me know in the comments! And please note if you are reading this in an email, it’s a no-reply service 😕; please reach out instead! Thanks for reading and happy December!

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