Head of People
All of us can be impacted by feelings of overwhelm (especially during the holiday season when there is so much to look forward to!) , but what exactly is ‘overwhelm’? And what should we do when it strikes?
In our blog, we explore the stresses of overwhelm and how seven steps can help you climb out of it.
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 the part of the brain that sounds the alarm when we find ourselves in frightening and threatening situations.
The amygdala ultimately wants to keep us safe, but our threat response hasn’t evolved much since the pre-historic days of saber-toothed predators. 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 some describe overwhelm as a type of ‘emotional flooding’.
When this happens, the amygdala is hijacked, flooding us with an emotional response that can make it hard for us to think clearly. We might feel anxious, frightened, disconnected, irritable or ashamed. Overwhelm affects each of us differently, but it is a feeling we all want to experience fleetingly.
To escape, visualize 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, mentally restful place to be – but too much time there can lead to boredom and frustration.
Outside comfort is the ‘stretch zone’. The stretch zone is where we rely on untested skills and strengths, for things we’ve never done before. Here, it’s normal to feel a bit uncomfortable and have feelings of self-doubt.
The trick is not to overstep the stretch zone into panic. The panic zone is where overwhelm thrives. A certain level of pressure and tension can be motivating. But if we stretch our comfort level too much, 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 situation. 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 helpful. Stop. Take notice. 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 provide us with key information. Often, we try to block our emotions (perhaps through drink, food or mind-numbing TV), when we should be tuning in to what they are trying to tell us. “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 intense emotions, the more they dissolve and leave us less overwhelmed.
Writing everything down is a powerful tool because it externalizes your feelings of stress. You’re no longer wasting precious energy trying to remember everything and, by visualizing the key issues, you can start to minimize them. The bad news is that something like a to-do list doesn’t always help.
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 externalizing your to-do list, where you can more easily pick priority actions for the day.
Sometimes we have such high self-expectations that we pile on more tasks that no one requested — they wouldn’t even notice if we didn’t do them! Analyze your to-do list to see if you have unrealistic expectations for yourself.
If you’re looking at the list and it still feels unmanageable, then you have overpromised your time and your list could use a trim. You can’t make everyone happy all the time – a little disappointment is not the end of the world when it allows you time to better priortize.
Studies have shown that multitaskers take 50% longer to complete a task and make up to 50% more errors. Look at how many people think they can text and drive to know that multitasking is a myth. Pick one task at a time rather than dividing and depleting your energy.
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. 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.
Sleeping, drinking water, eating healthy foods, and spending time outside will help you maintain the level of resilience necessary to manage your busy and hectic schedule.
Though it may be the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, 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 utilize every day.
As we’ve discussed, if you’ve analyzed your workload and it’s still too much to handle, you may need to talk to your manager. Talking things through is a great way to release emotion and will always help gain clarity and perspective.
With these steps in mind, we hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a stress-free 2023. And if you are looking to join a company that values a healthy work-life balance, avoiding the damaging effects of overwhelm, check out our Career opportunities here.
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.