Do you know this feeling?
Your throat is blocked, your back feels a little sweaty. You have no idea where to start.
It’s so much,
it’s too much,
way too much.
It’s out of control and you have no idea how to regain any sense of being on top. You don’t know where to start. You want to cry. Or scream. Or both.
It feels as if there’s a huge weight on top of you. Crushing you down. Pressing your breath out and allowing no room to draw a new one in. You heartbeat rises. There’s a cramped feeling in your chest. Where does this end??
You probably do know this feeling, as do I. It’s Overwhelm. It happens to us when we get piled up in to-do’s and our emotional resilience isn’t up to the task to manage our thought process. Instead of clearly thinking about the facts, we go into overdrive and spiral out of control into an emotional roller coaster. That’s when you would say that you are overwhelmed.
In this article I’ll share with you a 6-step approach to handle overwhelm in the moment and prevent it in the future. But let’s first double back and have a quick look at what creates that feeling of overwhelm.
When we get into a state of stress, our stress hormone cortisol rises. If things get really bad, our natural anti-depressant Serotonin drops. This in itself creates an overwhelming feeling of stress and anxiety. To understand the process that goes on in our mind, I want borrow some wisdom from Susan David, who’s book Emotional Agility is a great read. Susan David says that our thoughts spiral out of control because of the way some of our oldest brain systems work together.
The proces starts with a simple thought: oh, I see a snake on my path.
Then, the simple thought is taken by a reflexive response to it: snakes are dangerous.
Then, something David calls ‘Technicolor Thought Blending’ kick in: if this snake bites me I’ll be dead within the hour. There’s no-one here. I cannot save myself.
And finally the emotional punch: I’ll die here today. What about my family? I had so much to live for…
The problem is that so much of our thoughts are followed by a reflexive response. Our inner chatter takes up an enormous part of what we think about in any given day.
So, facts are never just facts. Instead, they come with a gigantic package of reflexive responses, opportunities for Technicolor Thought Blending and Emotional Punches.
And that is what happens when you start feeling overwhelmed: you’ve gotten to the point of the Emotional Punch, which is now whispering inside your head that you’ll never get that promotion, instead you’ll be fired.
Your wife will leave you.
You’ll never see your kids again.
And, and, and…(or something to that effect).
Handling Overwhelm in the Moment
The one and only way to stop this emotionally charged spiralling is to calm your nervous system. Luckily, that’s not very hard. It does require you to a) to recognise what is going on and b) take a moment away from it all to recenter.
Great ways to do this are belly breathing, a short meditation, shaking, dancing, walking in nature, etc. These can be done in 5 minutes and will give you instant relief.
That’s step 1.
Steps 2-6 to Handle Overwhelm and Prioritise Your To Do List
Step 2: Write down everything that’s on your mind. The small & the large, the personal & the work related. Do a brain dump, and get back to the plain hard facts.
Step 3: Cluster all to-do’s from step 2 into one of these categories: you, someone else (who?), no-one and the Universe. Not everything on you mind is something that should be done by you (cat: someone else). Not everything on your mind should be done at all (cat: no-one). And something things on your mind are so big and so out of your sphere of influence, that it’s better to turn them over to the powers that be (cat: the Universe).
Step 4: Get clear on your “non-negotiables”. These are activities and connections that vital to your overall wellbeing. Think: connecting with the most important people in your life, self care etc. Activities related to your non-negotiables should be top-priorities, because when they fail, everything fails.
Step 5: Get clear on your longterm view. It’s so much easier to prioritise if you have a clear vision. So take some time to really consider what you are trying to create, both professional as well as in your personal life. Activities related to your vision should at least regularly make your priorities-list.
Step 6: Plan your weeks based on the results of step 2-5: do your non-negotiables need attention? Put them in first. What can you do to bring your vision closer? They go in next. Then see if there are projects that are near the deadline that need your attention to bring them forwards.
Be mindful not to just prioritise things that other people are stressed about. This is not their week planning, it’s yours.
The key into handling your overwhelm is understanding that it’s not the facts that make you overwhelmed, but your responses to the facts. Your powerful mind has a way with facts that’s super creative but not in a positive way. By understanding this and stopping the process in it’s tracts, you empower yourself to explore your options. Especially when you get clear on your non-negotiable and your larger vision.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
This month’s lesson in The Sovereign Leader Inner Circle is all about overwhelm. There’s a accompanying hand-out that walks you through these 6 steps, so you can really create space in your life for the things that matter most. You can join us here & get this month’s lessons and all following monthly content.