• Dr. Patty Hlava

Say Goodbye to Overwhelm

Overwhelm. It’s everywhere. I hear the feeling of overwhelm described by at least 75% of my new clients. I often see this word in various online postings, and it even shows up frequently in a casual conversation. The common culprit is this: The never-ending To-Do list. Quite simply put, people are feeling buried under the weight of things on their to-do lists. We keep adding information and engaging in activities and interactions without allowing space and time to integrate these new concepts, experiences, or information.

Responsibilities at work and home are pulling all of us in too many directions. The complexities of living in the world today all pile on top of one another. The seemingly unending list sends the message: “You’re not keeping up!”

It’s easy to feel inundated with news, opinions, facts, and fiction. We become bombarded with things we want to do, need to do, or feel like we should do—and often these different things pull us in many different—and sometimes contradictory—directions. We have responsibilities to our families, which in many cases includes more than one generation; we have responsibilities to employers, peers, friends, and then there are the very real threats and concerns in the world at large. Some responsibilities are daily or repetitive such as groceries, meal planning/preparation, dishes, and laundry and can seem as though they are never truly complete. Others seem to appear “out of nowhere and land on the To-Do list with such an intensity that they can seemingly knock us off our feet: deadlines, medical emergencies, crisis, etc.

When we look at the list of responsibilities, overwhelm seems to be the only word to accurately describe the emotional response to The List. What exactly is overwhelm and how is it different from anxiety or fear?

Overwhelm generally occurs when we feel bombarded with new, or too much, information.

Overwhelm is how our body communicates to us that we are reaching a saturation point.

There is a very real tendency for most of us to respond to unpleasant emotion-experiences like overwhelm, as a shortcoming or failure. I’d like to invite you to challenge this perspective. We NEED these emotions. They are critical for us to acknowledge. In reality, unpleasant emotions, such as overwhelm are messages that the mind and body send to us so that we pay attention and really look at what we are doing and experiencing with a fresh eye. These emotions prompt us to pause, reflect, and process—even if only for a few moments.

A Change in Perspective

Overwhelm generally arises when we are experiencing a flood of new information or experiencing constantly changing life circumstances that we have not fully processed. This can occur when there are multiple streams of input happening at once. For example, you’re working on a task, the television is on, your phone is summoning your attention, and someone approaches you asks you a question. In that moment: too much new information at one time = sensory overload. Your mind races or goes blank, you experience tension in your body: in other words, you feel overwhelm. Your mind and body are signaling that you are reaching saturation. “No more input, please!

The common responses to overwhelm can look a lot like the following:

  • Withdraw: Saturation point is reaching and the fuse box switch flips and shuts down to prevent overload. This can look like a lot of inactivity. It’s the “I don’t know where to start, so I won’t do anything” response. It can feel numb. The mind can feel dull, and even confused at times; the body can feel tight and sluggish.

  • Lash out: Saturation point is reaching and sparks start to fly. This can look like being short with people in our lives, feelings of tightness and irritability, and difficulty concentrating or focusing. There may be tearful moments that “come out of nowhere”.

  • Blaming: This can go both inward and outward. It’s a lot of internal (and sometimes external!) automatic language of “What’s wrong with me?” or “What’s wrong with (fill in the blank here)?”. There is an assumption that something is at fault for the emotion-experience, and that the emotion-experience of overwhelm is simply wrong as well.

These experiences are often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Thoughts such as, “I should have been able to handle that”, or “I should be able to keep up,” or “why can’t I manage this?” start to fill the mind.

  • What if we changed the relationship with overwhelm and let go of seeing it as “bad” or “wrong”?

  • What if we could view overwhelm as a sign that we need to pause, reflect, and process?

  • What if the emotion-experience of overwhelm we are being invited to reassess and prioritize so that the streams of information can be taken in—one at a time?

  • What if we could accept overwhelm is an indication that we are saturated with information at that moment and simply need to step back and allow what we just experienced to settle into the body and mind?

A Welcome Response

There is a beautiful piece by the poet Rumi that speaks so beautifully as to how we can look at overwhelm, and really any other unpleasant emotion-experience.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

(Translation: Coleman Barks)

If we can shift our perspective on overwhelm—and view it as a guest, or an unexpected visitor, we can significantly decrease the intensity and duration of our own discomfort. When we understand that overwhelm is a series of sensations that the body and mind are sending us, inviting us to slow down and integrated, we are no longer at the mercy of the emotion. It becomes something that we can identify, respond to, and move on from.

This very practice is at the core of Easeful Living--one of the ten habits I teach in my signature program, Awaken. To invite ease and soothe our central nervous system, we can invite a new perspective into the mind/body.

So how do we do this reframe? Here are some strategies to help cultivate this shift:

  1. Notice what overwhelm feels like in your body. Become familiar with this. This is the knock on the door of the visitor of overwhelm at your guest house.

  2. Pause. Take a slow inhale through the nose, and very long and slow exhale through the nose. Repeat this two more times, focusing your attention on the exhale.

  3. Check-in with yourself, and examine what is happening around you right now: how much information, in how many forms are you taking in at this time? How many things are you juggling at one time?

  4. Acknowledge how much you have already done—no matter how little it may seem. It matters!

  5. Examine your options. Break large tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps. Ask for help or support if you need it.

  6. Take one small step forward.

  7. Exhale. Allow your body and mind to absorb all that you have just experienced.

Move at YOUR own pace. Be gentle with yourself.

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