Head of People
All of us can be impacted by feelings of overwhelm (not least in December when there’s so much to do!), but what exactly is ‘overwhelm’? And what should we do when overwhelm strikes? Here we explore the causes and seven steps you can take to climb out of overwhelm.
To understand what overwhelm is, we first need to understand a bit about the brain. The amygdala, a cluster of almond-shaped cells located near the base of the brain, is there to sound the alarm when we find ourselves in frightening and threatening situations.
The amygdala ultimately wants to keep us safe, but, instead of alerting us to sabre-toothed predators, our threat response hasn’t evolved: it can be triggered by relatively innocuous events, like a problematic email or cooking Christmas dinner for the in-laws!
Sensing a threat, an immediate and urgent signal is sent in the form of an overwhelming emotional response. ‘Overwhelm’, by definition, is to ‘bury or drown beneath a huge mass’. This is why the term ‘emotional flooding’ is used to describe feelings of overwhelm.
The amygdala is hijacked, flooding us with emotion that can make it hard for us to think straight. We might feel anxious, frightened, disconnected, irritable or ashamed. Overwhelm affects each of us differently and obviously all of us want to spend as little time in overwhelm as possible.
It’s useful to visualise how you feel when you’re in your ‘comfort zone’. When you’re doing tasks and activities you can do with your eyes shut, you’re in your comfort zone. It can be a great, restful place to be but, if we stay there too long, we can get bored and frustrated.
Outside comfort is the ‘stretch zone’. The stretch zone is where we are relying on untested skills and strengths, for things we’ve never done before, so it’s normal to feel a bit uncomfortable and have feelings of self-doubt.
The trick is not to overstep from stretch into panic. The panic zone is where overwhelm lives. A certain level of pressure and tension is good, it’s motivating, and it means we’re learning. If the situation is too stretching though, we’ll find ourselves in the panic zone.
If you would rather watch than read, here is a recording of my workshop on overwhelm.
Take a moment to notice and acknowledge you’re in overwhelm. This is the first step to climbing out of it.
The way we think affects our whole physiology, so we need to match our inner language with how we want to feel on the outside. When we hear in our heads “I’m so overwhelmed” or “I’m drowning”, it’s not that helpful. Stop. Notice it. And say something more resourceful like “Things feel tough right now, but I know this emotion won’t last forever, just like other emotions don’t last forever”.
The other thing to remember about emotions is that they are there to provide us with key information. Often we try to block our emotions out (perhaps through drink, food or mind-numbing TV), when really we should be tuning in to understand the need that’s not being met. “I’m feeling overwhelmed” is too broad. The reality might be “I’m feeling worried, I haven’t researched enough for this presentation”. The more we listen and learn from our emotions, the more they dissolve and leave us less overwhelmed.
Writing everything down is really powerful too because it gets the overwhelm out of your head. You’re then not wasting precious energy trying to remember everything and, by visualising the overwhelm, those feelings can start to subside. The bad news is that to-do lists don’t always work. There’s too much choice, too many big complex tasks, and when there are so many different priorities all in the same list, it can be difficult to make sense of it. Kanban Boards are a great tool for externalising your to-do list, where you can more easily pick priority actions for the day.
Sometimes we have such high expectations of ourselves that we pile on more tasks that no-one has asked for, that they wouldn’t even notice if we didn’t do them! Analyse the load to see if you have unrealistic expectations of yourself. If you’re looking at the list and it still feels unmanageable then somewhere you’ve overpromised and the list will need a trim. You can’t make everyone happy all of the time – a little disappointment is not the end of the world.
Studies have shown that multitaskers take 50% longer to complete a task and make up to 50% more errors. You only have to look at how many people think they can text and drive to know that multitasking is a myth. Pick one task up at a time rather than diverting and depleting your energy reserves.
When we have back-to-back meetings, should we really be surprised when we feel overwhelmed? It’s vital to ensure there are breaks in your schedule to actually get the work done and the ‘Pomodoro technique’ is a great time management tool based on 25-minute stretches of focused work, broken up with five-minute breaks. 25 minutes has been proven to be the ideal length of time to limit procrastination, boost productivity, and maintain focus.
Getting enough sleep, drinking water, eating healthy foods, and breathing fresh air will all help to maintain the level of resilience we need to manage our busy and hectic schedules. It might be the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling overloaded and overwhelmed but exercise is one of the most powerful ways to combat overwhelm and burn off stress hormones (which otherwise stay in the body causing untold damage). Short breaks to go for a walk or listen to calming music can make a world of difference.
Burnout is a real feeling. Being kind to yourself means speaking up if you need help. Taking small steps to reduce the feeling of overwhelm will eventually build healthy habits you can utilise every day.
As we mentioned, if you’ve analysed your load and it’s still too much, you need your manager to reduce it. Talking things through is a great way to release emotion and will always help gain clarity and perspective.
We hope you have a wonderful Christmas and calm 2023.
EFT is a somatic form of therapy that combines acupressure with psychology. It is also known as ‘tapping’ as you physically tap and stimulate points on the face and body. It work as a self-applied stress reduction technique and can be applied to a range of areas such as stress, anxiety, worry, phobias, PTSD, pain (chronic and specific), cravings, exam anxiety, beliefs and much more. The published research studies show that it can reduce a range of biochemistry in the body e.g. blood pressure, brain activity, cortisol levels etc.