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The Ugly Truth About Overwhelm

May 27, 2021

In this post, I want to talk to you about overwhelm.

This is something I see time and time again, smart and capable people, expending vast amounts of time and energy yet failing to really move the needle forward in terms of their life or career.

Instead, they are playing it too safe and allowing unhelpful coping mechanisms such as perfectionism, people-pleasing, busyness, over-working, and comparison to stifle their capacity for growth.

And I totally get it, it’s really easy to get lost in the sea of emails, meetings, obligations, expectations, and responsibilities.

It can feel very vulnerable to take a stand, say no and do things differently.

Of course, we want to get it right and be pleasing to others.

But here’s the thing, if you are going to allow all these external forces to sweep you along like the flotsam and jetsam from a ship wrecked in a stormy sea, then you are going to end up exhausted, stressed, anxious, burnt out, and completely overwhelmed!

As hard as this might be to hear, we cannot plan, push and function our way out of overwhelm.

It’s only when we press pause, recharge our battery, step out of our comfort zone and risk doing it differently that we get to experience that sense of control and inner peace we crave.

So in this post, I’m going to explore

  • What overwhelm is and the symptoms to look out for
  • The societal norms that contribute to it
  • The difference between being busy and productive
  • How our time and energy management can exacerbate it, and
  • 6 ways to reduce overwhelm

What Is Overwhelm?

Google defines overwhelm as:

  1. To bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something.
  2. To have a strong emotional effect on.

Overwhelm is a state which can feel like you are drowning or buried under work, responsibilities, expectations, or your never-ending to-do list.

It can also feel like being overcome by intense emotions that are really difficult to manage.

It can cause brain fog, affect your ability to think and act rationally, and make it hard to see the wood for the trees..

Often it can be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and generally trying to do too much.

What’s really important though is to know that feeling overwhelmed is completely normal.

Everyone occasionally feels overwhelmed; however, when these feelings become all-encompassing and knock you off course, they can be detrimental to your health and your productivity.

Symptoms Of Overwhelm

Overwhelm can show up in many different ways. Here is a list of some of the symptoms –

  • Feeling exhausted all the time
  • Lacking energy and motivation
  • Struggling to prioritise
  • Feeling helpless and defeated
  • Brain fog
  • Feeling frozen or stuck
  • Everything feels difficult, like wading through treacle
  • Struggling to concentrate/focus
  • Loss of appetite or emotional eating/drinking
  • Procrastination/putting things off/avoidance
  • Hibernating/keeping to yourself more
  • Self-doubt and overthinking
  • Feeling moody and intense emotions such as anger, anxiety, and irritability.

Societal Norms When It Comes To Overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed is such a common experience in modern society.

And is it any wonder we are feeling so stressed and exhausted from all the information we are now exposed to, our never ending to-do lists, and all the different roles and expectations we have to live up to?

So if you are feeling overwhelmed, firstly I want you to know that you are not alone. Contrary to the serene idea of the swan gliding gracefully across the lake, if we look underneath the water, most of us are paddling like mad just trying to stay afloat these days!

But when did busy become a badge of honour?

Back in the 1980s, there was a shift in society when we started to be financially rewarded for working longer hours, and the people that worked long hours were often seen as the best workers.

This also coincided with women entering the workforce en masse, which meant people were working longer hours and feeling the strain of trying to juggle their professional and personal life.

Now add in a culture that increasingly glorifies busyness, and rewards those that dedicate themselves to their career, or who give all of themselves to others, and you have the perfect recipe for a disastrous overwhelm souffle!

There are so many external pressures to overwork and overgive these days

  • A boss or colleagues being online or sending emails late at night often sets precedence for us to be online or sending emails late at night too.
  • The company meeting culture that leaves no time during working hours to work on our projects, objectives, and the actions we pick up during these meetings! Consequently, we feel we have no choice but to work late or log on at the weekend just to keep on top of things.
  • Being told verbally to switch off and look after our wellbeing; however, the culture, systems, volume of work, and expectations placed upon us make it impossible!
  • The pressure (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes from others) to conform, be pleasing, get it right, be perfect, be strong, work harder etc.

I could go on but I’m sure you get the point I’m making.

If we don’t stand up and say no. If we don’t redefine success on our own terms. If we keep allowing these external pressures to win, then overwhelm is going to get the best of us.

But there is another way…

Productivity Vs Being Busy

Many of my clients are super busy and in fire fighting mode when I first meet them.

And yet the things they are so frantically doing aren’t really advancing or changing their position. They are expending a lot of time and energy treading water and not actually going anywhere.

Productivity is about the ratio of the output volume vs the ratio of the input volume.

Often when we are busy rather than productive it can feel like we are running around like a headless chicken but we don’t have much to show for it at the end of the day.

The tasks we are focusing on tend to be the ones that are easy or the ones we can complete within the short amounts of time we have between other commitments.

This is often because we feel that we don’t have the time, energy, or headspace to dive into the more complex work that requires us to think and plan.

Yet it’s usually when we make the space to reflect, think and plan that we can identify the actions needed to make the biggest impact in our life or career.

If you struggle to make time and give yourself permission to stop, or you are worried about what will happen if you do, this is where coaching can help.

It helps you to build in time for you, where you can stop the madness of your world for a moment, throw all the jigsaw pieces out on the table.

Then together we start to piece them back together again to create a new picture that incorporates your needs and feels good on the inside, rather than just looking good on the outside.

You can find out more about my coaching programme here.

Time & Energy Management

When my clients present feeling overwhelmed they often want help with time management.

However, when we dig a bit deeper they are usually exhausted and not taking care of themselves.

I know it might surprise you to hear this but human beings aren’t designed to be constantly ‘switched on’.

So it’s not necessarily about implementing systems to get more done, more a case of identifying ways to do less so you can make time to re-energise yourself.

Think of your energy as the battery in your phone. When your phone battery is freshly charged, everything works efficiently and effectively. You can quickly and easily switch between apps without any delays or technical issues.

Over time as you use your phone the energy in the battery starts to reduce. As the battery gets low you may find that your phone starts to function slower or the screen freezes sometimes.

At this point, you know you need to plug the phone in to recharge it and restore it back to full functionality, otherwise, the battery will die and you won’t be able to use your phone.

As human beings, we don’t have a light that flashes to tell us that our battery is running low. This is what our feelings are for. Yet so many of us choose to stuff down and ignore our feelings and push on through.

Overwhelm is essentially your low battery warning light flashing furiously at you!

If you don’t stop and recharge then you will eventually run out of energy, which looks like burnout, emotional, mental, and physical health issues.

Just like our phones, we do not have unlimited capacity.

Our capacity changes day by day, influenced by lots of different factors – sleep, weather, nutrition, water intake, alcohol intake, exercise/movement, life events, relationship issues, etc.

Therefore what we can achieve and deal with day to day will fluctuate.

I know we all like to think we can compartmentalise our lives. The reality is if we’ve had a rubbish night’s sleep, woken up late, missed breakfast, and had a row with our partner all before we start our day, it is probably going to affect our energy levels and capacity for dealing with difficult things.

Equally, if your day is filled with back-to-back appointments and meetings, do you really have time to do the eleventy seven things you have written on your to-do list for the day?

It’s so important we get realistic about how much time and energy we have available each day and start to prioritise accordingly.

6 Ways To Reduce Overwhelm

1. Stop Playing ‘Beat The To-Do List’

I’ll say it again, you cannot function, plan and push your way out of overwhelm! There will always be things to do – you will never beat your to-do list!

So stop assigning your worth to what you do or don’t do! You can check out my article ‘Self Worth – The Value Of You’ for more information on this.

When your phone battery is low you might turn on energy saving mode, switch it off or plug it in. This is what you need to do for yourself.

I know it might be inconvenient; however, if you keep pushing yourself without recharging, you will eventually have no choice about when or how you stop because your body will do it for you.

And if this happens you’ll probably be out of action for much longer, which will be even more inconvenient in the long run…

Slow down and make time to rest and recharge.

2. Do A Daily Check-In

Use the following questions to check in with yourself –

  • How am I feeling?
  • What do I need?
  • How can I meet these needs?
  • Who can help?
  • On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being completely depleted and 10 being fully energised, what is your energy level today?
  • What non-negotiables do you have in your diary today?
  • Have much time is available outside those commitments?
  • What will I do for myself today?

It’s important to be realistic about how much time and energy you have and what you can achieve, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Remember to build in time to stop and meet your own needs, not just plough through your to-do list.

And don’t forget to reach out and ask for help.

I know it can feel vulnerable and take courage to say I’m struggling.

Do it anyway.

Give yourself permission to be human and the gift of not having to do it all single-handedly.

3. Prioritise What’s Important

You can do anything, but not everything – David Allen

This quote from David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done productivity system, is a reminder to focus on what’s important to do rather than trying to do it all.

You can do whatever you want, but the time you have for whatever you want is limited.

Often when we feel overwhelmed we are trying to do too much.

When you are overwhelmed, what’s important is you.

Prioritising your needs enables you to be more productive in the long run and continue to give to others.

Become responsibly selfish.

Choose you.

4. Review Your Lifestyle

I don’t want to get preachy here and I’m certainly no angel, but what we put into our body affects how it runs.

You wouldn’t pour wine into your car’s fuel tank and expect it to go anywhere because you know that a car needs petrol (diesel/electric), oil, and water to run (and what a waste of wine too right!).

Humans need water, food, and nourishment to function properly.

The quality and quantity of what we put in will influence what we get out.

And I’m not just referring to food and water.

Nourishment can relate to how much sleep we get, the media we consume, the people we spend time with, our environment, our activity levels, how happy and fulfilled we feel in our life and career, our hobbies amongst many other things.

So if you are feeling overwhelmed, start getting honest about how well you are looking after yourself.

What is one small change you can make today?

For me it always starts with decreasing screen time, increasing my water intake to around 2-3 litres per day, eating more vegetables, increasing my movement, getting out in nature, seeing friends, and doing things that light me up.

I also supplement my diet with good quality vitamins and adaptogens (healing herbs that help to relieve stress and anxiety).

5. Eliminate Distractions

Multi-tasking is a myth.

When you are doing lots of things all at once you are simply switching your attention quickly between each thing.

This is a sure-fire way to drain your battery, much like having all the apps open on your phone whilst scrolling social media, chatting to your friends on WhatsApp, and doing your shopping online all at the same time will suck the life out of your phone!

When you are feeling overwhelmed you need to put yourself into energy-saving mode.

Challenge yourself to focus on one thing at a time and set yourself up for success by removing distractions.

Put your phone in another room.

Turn off notifications.

Shut down your emails.

Set a timer and allow yourself to work uninterrupted on just one thing.

You’ll be amazed by how much more you get done.

6. Say No & Set Boundaries

In my experience, many of us don’t have a time management problem, we have a problem saying no and setting boundaries for ourselves and with others.

We continually veer out of our own lane and take on work and responsibilities that don’t belong to us.

The more we try to be pleasing and helpful, the more work and responsibility we are given and we become to go-to person for everyone whenever they have a problem!

Building the courage to displease and disappoint might be difficult at first; however, it is the key to liberating us from overwhelm and creating the peace and contentment we desire.

In Conclusion

It is normal to feel overwhelmed from time to time. It’s your body’s way of warning you that your energy levels are low and you need to stop and recharge.

Our modern society is feeding a culture of overwhelm, an expectation for people to always be ‘on’ and glorifying busyness, overworking, and overgiving.

However, we have a choice whether to conform and get swept away like the flotsam and jetsam from a shipwreck or to take our power back and choose ourselves.

This poem by Iain Thomas sums it up perfectly –

“And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.” – Iain Thomas

If you’d like some help with stepping out of overwhelm and choosing what’s important you can download my FREE guide ‘How To Say No & Be Ok With It’.

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