Practical strategies for dealing with overwhelm
By Vicki Evans
Many of us can relate to feeling overwhelmed within the context of life and work. For years now, busy has been worn as a badge of honour, although recognition of the importance of nurturing our hauora, our wellbeing — both in and out of work — seems to be on the rise.
But living in chronic overwhelm takes a physical, mental and emotional toll. And, it can lead to burnout, now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.
Working in the for-purpose sector when you’re already inclined toward overwhelm can add another layer of pressure. As a friend said to me recently, ‘if I don’t turn up to work, the school kids don’t get fed that day’. There can be very real consequences for not getting your job done — and the work simply feels so important.
Realistically, tackling overwhelm is a societal, not just individual, responsibility. But how do we keep our own resilience afloat when we find ourselves swimming in a sea of pressure? Here are three simple strategies that may help.
1. Whatever You’re Doing – STOP and Mix It Up
The absolute best thing we can do in the midst of an overwhelm storm is: SOMETHING ELSE.
I’m talking anything that’s not on your must-do right now list, particularly if it’s a bit fun, creative or involves some sort of basic movement.
Yes, this sounds completely counter-intuitive, and you’re probably thinking — why on earth would I do that when I’m already full to bursting with to-do’s?
Surely the best way through it is to push on through until everything gets done.
However, stepping away to do something else — whether it be a few minutes of YouTube hilarity watching baby otters learning to swim, or hopping outside to stare at the passing cars for a minute, or going for a quick walk around the block — is like magic for your busy brain. It pops you into a different mode – giving your busy thinking mind (which plays a big role in keeping us stuck in overwhelm) a bit of rest.
Secondly, you’ll create a bit of distance – which helps you get perspective on your situation. In fact, the more you step away from your busyness, the more clearly you’ll be able to see your true priorities.
Suddenly, the world doesn’t seem quite so likely to end if you don’t attend to the 101 things on your to-do list right this moment. (And if not doing one of those things will really cause a catastrophe? Do THAT and excuse yourself from the pressure of the rest).
Stepping away helps us remember we can best serve our cause when we’re rested and replenished.
And creative solutions pop into our mind with zero effort.
And finally, my personal favourite – stepping away for one small moment will also give your frazzled body a break.
But beware – and expect – that your mind will very likely try to talk you out of stepping away for this short moment. (Do it anyway!). And pay attention to your mind’s reasoning – it’ll come in handy for the next strategy.
2. Become a Thought Detective
Our thinking – the way we see the world – normally plays a big role in any area we feel stuck. Feeling overwhelmed is no different.
If you tried the first strategy, you might have found yourself facing a bit of resistance. This is perfectly normal. And it means you’ve likely stumbled across what I refer to as your Reasons Why I Can’t.
These sound something like:
- I don’t have time to entertain the idea of a break.
- If I stop now, I’ll have an even more stressful day tomorrow.
- I don’t have a choice – everything has to get done today.
- So-and-so is relying on me and I can’t let her down.
Do any of these sound familiar?
If not, try to identify at least one of your own by answering the following quick questions. Go with the first thing that comes to mind.
Work would be less stressful if _______________________________________________
I don’t have enough ______________________________________________________
I can’t let _______________ down because ____________________________________
I have to get everything done today because ______________________________________
In each case, question whether you can absolutely know whether these reasons (which are actually just beliefs) are true, or whether it’s possible that other, less stressful perspectives might exist.
Your mind may try to convince you of their truth, but I invite you to persist.
Because when we start to notice and question our tightly held beliefs, we start to gain a bit of freedom.
Just the thing we need when overwhelm is keeping us captive.
3. The Art of the Smallest Possible Step
Even if the first two exercises provide more clarity on our true priorities, aiming for perfection or procrastinating from taking action altogether can still keep us stuck in overwhelm.
In this case, finding the smallest possible steps to take can be a lifeline.
We all know that breaking down big projects and tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks is helpful, right?
When we’re stuck in perfectionist or procrastination mode, sometimes this doesn’t go far enough.
Try aiming for the tiniest possible steps instead. That is, the absolute smallest, most playful, inviting steps you can imagine toward that overarching project or task you need to get done.
So, if writing an article is the goal, we might normally tell ourselves we’ll just write the draft first. The smallest possible step, however, might simply be scribbling one idea for the draft onto the nearest napkin.
Can you see how this feels infinitely easier?
Knowing that all you need to do right now is just that one, micro task, makes it infinitely more doable – not to mention appealing.
And once you do it, you might be surprised at how easy it is to complete the whole activity in full.
All you need to do is start, but sometimes starting is the most overwhelming part. That’s why these very tiny steps are your greatest ally.
Getting unstuck from overwhelm is a practice and it pays to remind ourselves how common it actually is. Having simple strategies up our sleeves to practice on a regular basis is empowering.
Do any of these particular strategies speak to you?
Why not pop them into your own self-care toolkit, starting today? All you need is a few moments.
About Vicki Evans, Certified Coach
Vicki has always been driven by making the world a better place and recently made the jump to full-time coaching at Vicki Evans Coaching (amongst other for-purpose pursuits). She’s a Certified Martha Beck Coach who specialises in supporting purpose-driven folks to drop stress and self-pressure, reconnect to their why, and live + work with greater ease.
Prior to this, she worked in programme and funding management in the for-purpose world across central and local government, the health system, philanthropy, and always closely alongside NGOs + social enterprises.
Some of her favourite things include tramping, coffee, animal whispering, and driving her partner mad with her decluttering obsession.