Understanding and Overcoming Overwhelm
Having recently studied a human behaviour course at TCI in Melbourne and being in the current situation of lockdown, a common theme in my life and others working from home has been the topic of anxiety and overwhelm. It has only recently occurred to me how useful it is to understand and name our emotions. I would love to to share some ideas around overcoming overwhelm with you. Reading from Brene Braun, Sarah Maree McKay and my studies and webinars from Matt Lavars at TCI have helped inform my ideas on anxiety and overwhelm. If you’re struggling with lockdown, studying from home, planning to sit an important exam, settling into a new environment or even a new country, moving house, going for a new job, starting a new project or just simply being super busy, understanding overwhelm might be helpful for you.
So what exactly is overwhelm? What causes overwhelm and how can we respond when it happens?
Overwhelm is an emotional response we all sometimes experience and can be a combination of anxiety, stress or depression or even just a mix of emotions pleasant and unpleasant. It usually surfaces when we face a challenge, a significant change in life circumstances or have an important decision to make.
I remember when I first went overseas to live in Spain for a year. I wasn’t prepared at all and I had acquired very little Spanish before leaving Melbourne. When I first arrived in Barcelona and during that year (some years ago), I had moments where I was so overwhelmed by all the little things I needed to do each day and all the things I couldn’t do, because of my limited language skills, that sometimes, (and this is a secret) I stayed in bed all morning – sleeping! Then I would go out with my friends (who all spoke English!) and come home late and sleep in, and get up late again….I was busy and working and studying but mostly I was speaking English when my goal was to learn Spanish! ….Can you relate to this? This was me in overwhelm. At one point, I even went to get a medical check up in a hospital! Nothing physically wrong with me, they said…what I now believe I had was overwhelm or anxiety! After my medical check-up, I stopped worrying and everything was fine in the end, fortunately.
Right now, in the current climate of the Corona virus, we are all spending so much time at home. For me, as I’m teaching large classes online, I have found this problem a recurring theme – even if a milder version. Working online from home has increased my anxiety at times. So what can we do about it?
Where does overwhelm come from?
Most people experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their lives. 70% of us in fact. Many of us are wired to be vigilant to potential risks to our safety. This can lead to strong emotions. Self talk, our inner dialogue, is usually connected with emotions. One can cause the other, depending on how we understand our emotions and the world. What am I telling myself before and after the emotion occurs? The first step to addressing the problem of overwhelm is noticing it. Beyond that, trying to understand what we were thinking or telling ourselves before the feeling happened can also help us to understand and decide what to do next. What triggered the emotion? Was it external or internal? Was it a perceived threat? Teenagers and adolescents often feel overwhelmed because they experience more than one emotion at a time. In a moment of overwhelm, learning to name the emotions can help. Naming the negative emotion first and the positive second can also help. For example, “I’m tired and anxious.” could be reframed as ” I’m tired and excited about all the new things I’m planning to do.” This way, we remember and focus on the positive emotions rather than the negative.
Often overwhelm can also be triggered when we have too many options and we don’t know where to begin. Let’s say, for example, you have to write an essay in a very short time frame-such as under exam conditions. Have you ever felt overwhelmed in that situation? The reason might be because of the test, the question, the score you want to get, fear of failing, or even something that happened in the distant past…the list goes on, but until you take action and start writing, the overwhelm stays. In my case, I had too many options- work or study or travel…? So even having too much free time can create overwhelm or anxiety. Perhaps you’re starting a business or a new project and there is just so much to learn. How do we break it all down to reduce the anxiety?
Writing a plan is the first step to overcoming overwhelm and reducing anxiety. This takes a lot of information and thoughts out of our head and puts it on paper. The next thing to do is, go ahead and do one thing on that list. Start with the first thing- for example, write the first sentence of your essay, which becomes the first paragraph and before you know it you’re almost done with your essay. Perhaps you need to prepare for the IELTS test- do one online lesson or write one task. The popular metaphor for this strategy is: Q:“How do you eat an elephant?” A: “One bite at a time.” Breaking down any huge task into smaller pieces or writing a list of the many tasks you have to do can help you to decide what to do next. Take one bite, then another bite, then repeat. Check off the list as you go. Taking action is possibly the most important thing you can do to get beyond the feeling of overwhelm.
Asking for help
Another thing to do when you feel overwhelmed is to ask for help. Phone a friend or someone in your family. If possible, find someone who has done what you want to do and ask for help. This could be a teacher, mentor, coach or a friend in a similar situation. Why is this important? Staying with the feeling of overwhelm is painful and wastes time. Taking action towards a small goal, even if that is simply having a conversation with someone, can make a huge difference to your headspace and free you up to do the next step, at the same time reducing the emotion. Even if you simply tell them, “I don’t know what to do…” letting your friend listen and talk you through it will help!
Helping someone else
Another helpful thing to do when you fell anxious is to help another person. Perhaps someone you know is going through a similar struggle. How can helping them with their struggle help you? First, it takes your mind off yourself and you can then “get out of your own head” and keep moving with your plan. This also gives us a chance to see life from another perspective. Looking at life from the perspective of another person can give us a contrast frame. This means we can see how fortunate we are to have the choices and decisions we have to make. How many people in the world would love to do what you’re planning to do? To be able to live where you’re living, work where you’re working? Have the freedom and lifestyle you have? The opportunities to grow that you have? Remembering our blessings and expressing gratitude for how lucky we are is sure cure for fear and anxiety.
Writing things down and checking off the list
Remember to write down the steps and tick them off. This is the part that many people forget to do. Seeing your list on paper and checking off the items gives you clarity and control. Taking the power out of the emotion and getting you back to practical tasks and out of your head. This is like making a cake. If we only read the recipe or think about the cake, we never get to eat the cake. We must take action – buy the ingredients and follow the recipe in order to eat the cake in the end. Action leads to results.
Most importantly, remember, if you’re overwhelmed it is probably because you’re facing new challenges and changes which will always lead to growth- intellectual, physical, emotional or spiritual. So take advantage and make the most of what your emotions are trying to teach you.
I’d love to know what happens to you when you feel overwhelmed? Heart racing? Sweaty palms? Confusion? Lack of focus or mind going blank? And what do you do to overcome it? Feel free to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whatever it is for you, when you notice overwhelm, you can stay with it and do nothing…or you can take action. So why not go ahead and do your next thing!