Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Like 60% of adults in the United States, according to Gallup, I have felt overwhelmed by stress. Many now refer to overwhelm as a global pandemic, and it is a confirmed contributor to the number of individuals who are opting to quit their jobs rather than return to the office right now. Several years ago, when I was in overwhelm’s grip, the adrenaline was a powerful drug, and like many others who experience it, I was rather proud of my ability to power through. When it began affecting my health, and creating burnout, however, I made finding strategies to end overwhelm a top priority.
Not surprisingly, the main source of overwhelm is in the workplace, with 83% of us suffering from daily stress there. For too many of us, it seems unavoidable. This rampant overwhelm is compounded by a culture that worships the “hustle” and continues to amplify digital distractions and accelerate demands. Overwhelm has mental, emotional and physical components, which keep us off balance and have a tendency to keep us stuck in overwhelm’s vicious cycle. That’s why it is so often described as a sensation of “drowning,” and why roughly 110,000 people in the US are searching for a way to overcome overwhelm at this moment.
Overwhelm is a belief that we must be better and do better/more in order to survive. Quite literally, we are overcome and overpowered by external demands, as well as our inner response and anxiety about them. In other words, our lives have a quality of unmanageability in the precise areas we are trying so intently to control and manage perfectly.
Here are the strategies I found most helpful to disengage myself from overwhelm:
Just breathe. I recall during a cardio class that an instructor frequently reminded us, “Remember to breathe.” I thought that was funny, until I realized that during stressful times, I was actually holding my breath. As I began to practice and study meditation, I also learned that it is impossible to be breathing deeply and feel stress, anxiety or overwhelm simultaneously. Of course, as soon as you stop breathing deeply, it is entirely possible to return to feeling overwhelm, but if you interrupt overwhelm with breathing more often, you begin to retrain your entire body and mind reflexes for greater resiliency.
Take Micro-Steps. Personally, one of my main sources of overwhelm are massive goals. I’m a big picture thinker, and there is certainly nothing wrong with having big goals – but trying to achieve them all at once is a recipe for overwhelm. I frequently remind my coaching clients that you can organize your closet or your files with just a single item at a time. The same is true of growing your email list or building a major ad campaign. Start where you are, and take only the next action, instead of being immobilized by the enormity of the entire project.
Give Yourself A Break. Today I can still feel overwhelm setting in. this is especially true when I have been in back-to-back meetings, or intently focused on a major deadline for several hours. My focus evaporates, and my anxiety grows. My old response to this was to push myself harder, working longer hours, and cutting back on personal time and sleep. I believed it was either take a long break and jeopardize my success, or take no break at all – which, ironically, jeopardized my success. Today, the moment I feel the onset of the tiniest bit of overwhelm, I look for my first opportunity to pause. I only do it it for 5-15 minutes, getting myself something to drink, walking the dog, or just checking for the mail. If at all possible, I take my break outside. Amazingly, my ability to focus and be more productive than if I had “powered through” is quite noticeable.
Focus on Solutions. This is not as obvious as it might seem. We are prone to focus on the current problem first and foremost. Unfortunately, we also tend to remain focused there, and worry about our finances, weight, work deadlines, etc. This overtaxes our mind, and builds stress in our bodies. Worry feels productive, but it is actually destructive over time. Instead, try thinking of five possible solutions, then pick just one and try it. This reduces stress, gets you out of a mental overload, and creates momentum, which is deeply satisfying, even if it isn’t 100% successful. You already have something else you can try next, which is also empowering.
Relinquish Control. Delegating to others, which is a teachable skill, is only a piece of the control we release in order to end overwhelm. As responsibilities increase, and professional growth increases, delegation is needed. We must become clear about our processes in order to turn them over successfully. That often feels counter-productive at first, since it takes time to shift into a new dynamic. However, there is another aspect of control we often overlook: we actually control far less than we believe. We want to control how others include us, respect us, hear us, and how fast we grow our influence and impact. All of these depend to some degree on other people’s cooperation. While we might convince someone to think or do something, we are only successful if they are willing to consider it. Ultimately, we only control our individual thoughts and actions, and no one else’s. When we embrace this idea, we are free to stop trying so hard to control other people and conditions; conserving our energy to where we can make the greatest impact – our own efforts.
Lighten Up. If you’re like me, you can get very serious; forgetting to laugh, be joyful, or even grateful many times! Telling someone thank you, playing with your children or pets, smiling at a stranger or a co-worker, hanging out with friends, signing up to get daily inspirations in your inbox are excellent ways to automatically alter your mood. Intensity is great for short bursts, but it simply is not sustainable for the long haul. If you don’t believe you have time for joy, then you have a much bigger fear issue.
Say No. Telling a boss, client or coworker ‘no’ can be terrifying, and should only be done with clear intention and awareness of the consequences. The time to do so is when your boundaries are being crossed. If you are being asked to work without proper compensation, or outside of your job/project description, for example, then it is time to take a stand. Many times it is unintentional, and a polite no is all that is needed. Otherwise, ask yourself why you are willing to remain in an unhealthy situation. There are other, more common, areas I found I needed to say no to, however. I had to say no to myself, due to my tendency to sign up for volunteer roles, or attend networking events that took up too much of my time without enough return on the investment. I did it out of a desire to help, and wound up disappointing instead, since I was already spread too thin. I also had to say no to some advice I was given by well-meaning and successful people. They were suggesting I run my business a certain way that had worked for them, or others, but when I tried it myself, I began to feel the overwhelm rising. They were primarily promoting what I call “the hustle mentality” and I know it can work, but it isn’t sustainable for long. I said no to keeping my calendar and email wide open. Instead, I blocked out times for working on my business, creating content, or building strategies and connecting with potential clients or partners. That way, I was in control of when I would allow myself to be available, because I put primary importance on my own time above everyone else’s. So far, I have had no complaints. Lastly, I had to say no to my FOMO (fear of missing out). That FOMO alone kept me highly agitated and distracted, especially on social media. I remind myself that I am exactly where I need to be right now, and I know everything I need to know to do the next right thing for myself.
Write It Out. Lots of coaches and consultants suggest managing your time with a to-do list. I certainly use one myself. However, I find to-do lists are a double-edged sword, especially if they are digital or you find yourself feeling guilty when you don’t complete everything on your list. I have found that the most effective lists are the ones I make that put personal activities (instead of work activities) at the top, have intentions on them about how I plan to show up throughout the day, and I keep a separate list of long-term activities I want to tackle. If I don’t write those things down somewhere, neuroscience confirms what we already suspected, that my mind becomes overwhelmed trying to remember everything. Just write it down, so your mind can relax and focus fully on the task at hand.
Get Clarity About Your Values and Your Purpose. Roughly 25% of American adults report they have a clear sense of purpose according to The New York Times. The same analysis adds that 40% either claim neutrality on the subject, or say they don’t have a purpose. Other studies show that this lack of clarity about our individual purpose robs our lives of meaning, and contributes heavily to rampant depression. Additionally, it amplifies overwhelm, since without purpose and meaning we lack clarity about our priorities and goals. Instead, we adopt other people’s goals for us, which can become inauthentic very quickly. This means we try to be someone we really are not. Getting clear on your values and purpose takes some time, and deep self-reflection. But the results are a true game-changer.
Face Your Fear. I save this strategy for last, since many of us would rather do anything before we risk the discomfort of looking too deeply at our fears. Over and over I have clients who need to walk through their fears with me present since facing them alone feels very unsafe. It’s worth it, however. When we are done, they inevitably feel exhilarated and empowered. Fear is at the root of overwhelm. It isn’t just any fear, either. It is the fear that we are not enough, or there is not enough of something to go around. Those two fears are what I call “scarcity thinking.” The best way to face this fear of scarcity is to become aware that it is there, right under the surface. It tells you things like: I don’t have enough time I need to work harder I’ll sleep when I’m done If I don’t do this, nobody else will I need to hurry or I’ll miss the deadline I can’t afford to disappoint them, or else… Everything is riding on this I need to have more credentials I need to make more money in order to… When one of those phrases pop into your mind, rather than ignore or stuff them (which only feeds the thought) ask yourself this question: Do I want to choose this idea right now? You empower yourself with the choice. Then, if you decide you would rather choose another idea, explore the thought’s opposites. Here’s an example: First thought: I don’t have enough time. Opposites: I have enough time. I have more than enough time. I can free up time in another area. Someone else can share their time.
There are certainly more ways to tackle overwhelm. These are the ones that I have found most useful myself. If these resonate with you, and you want to go deeper in mastering your overwhelm, reach out and let’s explore if we are a good fit to work together.