The Pocket Guide to Handling Overwhelm

January 27th, 2015 LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT!

In his book, Fearless, Steve Chandler says that ‘Overwhelm is just a thought. It has no objective reality.’

Consider that for a second.

Overwhelm isn’t real.  It just seems real.

It’s a crafty thought that comes with its very own lead-suit body language and frazzled facial expression.  Then there’s the shrill voice, the saucer eyes, the tendency to erupt at the slightest provocation.

Try having a sane conversation while in the wily grip of overwhelm.  Let me know how that goes for you.

I poke fun (lovingly!), only because I know how easy it is to become a victim of our own busy lives.  Handling overwhelm has been an obsession of mine because I’ve found myself feeling it so often.

Many of my clients struggle with it too.  I’ve come to the conclusion that many of us are cannibalized by our own success.  We are too busy. Too shattered. Too preoccupied with growing our businesses and living life to the full to nurture ourselves properly.  We think we can handle it.

So the sorry cycle continues till someone has a meltdown.  Or a breakdown.

Here are 4 tips when overwhelm seems upsettingly real:

  1. NOTICE & BREATHE:  Agreed, this is not easy.  And good luck to any brave/stupid soul who suggests that you ‘chillax’ when you’re experiencing overwhelm.  Try noticing that you’re feeling that old familiar sensation.  Then you can choose to breathe, close your eyes for a few seconds and remind yourself that this is just a thought.  It isn’t real.  Sometimes I even say it out loud: ‘I notice that I’m feeling a sensation of overwhelm.’  That creates a critical separation.  It’s a feeling I’m having.  It’s not ME.  Plus, it amuses the kids.

2.  SINGLE-TASK: David Allen’s helpful quote says it all: ‘You can do anything, but not everything.’  Try single-tasking when “the feeling” closes in.  Focus on one task.  If you give your attention to the thing you’re doing, without jumping ahead to all the items on your to-do list, overwhelm loses its power.  It fades.  Be fully in the moment, with a single task in front of you.  Then move onto the next one.

  1. FIX YOUR SYSTEM: When the feeling of overwhelm has faded, question what got you here in the first place.  Then question your system. This brings to mind the Zen proverb, ‘The obstacle is the path.’  If you find yourself experiencing overwhelm regularly, confronting the obstacle – that series of things that make you feel nuts – can open up a new way of living and working.

What has made you successful might be keeping you stuck in a way of working that leads to feeling fried.  We can hold onto things well past their best before dates – identities; rules we impose on ourselves; ideas about what constitutes success.  Usually in the ‘fix your system’ step, it’s necessary to assess what’s been driving you forward.  Is it love or fear?

  1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY’S WISDOM: I only fixed my system after hitting the wall.  I don’t recommend that approach.  Eight months ago, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and burnout.  My body just refused to collude with my work schedule any longer.  All the signs were there – relentless fatigue, sugar cravings, radioactive moods.  I chose not to listen.  Big mistake.  Our bodies have incredible wisdom.  It’s just not as easy to hear.  Until it is.  What is your body trying to tell you?  Not all wisdom speaks.  Feel into it.

The gift of overwhelm is an invitation to close that knowing-doing gap.  Lean into what you know bone-deep about what needs to change.  Step outside the looping thoughts that say driving yourself incessantly is the ‘only way.’  It’s not.  It’s listening to your inner wisdom that really empowers you.


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“Transformational, life-enhancing stuff.” Joanna Chin, COO, Langland