Lessons you can learn from feeling overwhelmed

Regardless of how well organised we are, there are times when things seem to seek out to overwhelm even the most resilient of us. While we may take satisfaction in our ability to juggle, to always be available or up to speed, this can disguise deep-rooted anxiety, an inability to delegate, or simply say no.

Then feelings of being overwhelmed happen and everything grinds to a halt.

But overwhelm doesn’t need to upend your progress — in fact there are lessons to be learned during this time, such as what got you to this point? Could you have avoided getting here? What could you do differently moving forward?

To help you answer these questions, the first thing you need to do is press pause..

1. Stop

When you’re overwhelmed, it’s like an alarm going off inside you. Your body and mind are bringing your awareness to something important that needs your attention. Taking a moment to remove yourself from an overwhelming situation enables your body to calm down.

Once you stop, you’re allowing yourself to process the information you’ve been given and assess what’s happening, and when you do this, you’re reclaiming control over the experience.

Once you stop — focus on your breathing. Breathing is the quickest way to calm the body down, because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body.

Take a big inhale from your abdomen, move that breathe through your body, then exhale all that air out.

Take time out
Once you’ve put the brakes on, you’re forcing yourself to be present for what you’re feeling and thinking within the moment. What do you need right now? A good night’s sleep? A nutritious meal? To talk with loved ones?

Disconnect for a bit and carve out time for yourself. Choose to be kind to yourself in whatever way you wish. Enjoy downtime and don’t feel guilty — you need it.

2. Reflect

If you’re wondering where to go from here, it’s time to reflect and think carefully about what led up to you feeling so overwhelmed. Some good questions to ask yourself are:

Did I have too much on my plate? If so, what is and isn’t important? Can I delegate? Who can help me?

Was I well-prepared? If not, what else can I do to become better equipped? Is anything getting in the way of my preparation?

Were there any warning signs I ignored that could have kept me from getting to this point?

Am I self-sabotaging?

What is the most important thing I can do to move forward and closer towards my longterm goals?

Opening this dialogue with yourself is beneficial because it helps you to sort through the information you received from being overwhelmed. Taking the time to reflect will assist you to really understand what behaviours led up to this point, and how you can avoid getting here again. For instance:

Don’t compare
Work/ life balance is very subjective. What benefits one person won’t be applicable for another, so making comparisons can be really obstructive and worsen feelings of overwhelm. If buying all the christmas presents by the end of October makes you feel on top of things, then that’s great — but it’s not necessarily where everyone’s priorities lie.

Learn to say no
Often we feel compelled to say yes even when we already have too much on our plate. Especially when we don’t have the right skill set, or someone is asking too much of us and saying no would be a more sensible option. Learning to say no, respectfully and gracefully is better for both you and the other person, and will keep you free to focus on your initial tasks.

Ask for help
Many struggle with asking for help and perhaps it’s because we’re worried about appearing incapable, or fear being turned down. But often a task that feels overwhelming could be less challenging with a little help. Knowing when you need support isn’t a sign of weakness — it shows that you’re aware of your own strengths and those of others around you.

Accept your capabilities
This guides us to cope with unrealistic self- expectations. Often we think we can achieve more than possible, or we don’t realise how long tasks will take. Whether we commit ourselves to this — or others — we can then experience a feeling of failure as we recognise we won’t get the task done in time. This leads to additional feelings of being overwhelmed by the idea of finishing the task, or doing it again in the future.

Instead when you make a start, think through all the factors involved and be conscious of how long each will take. Keep all these things in mind — have a contingency plan, and be honest and realistic about the promises you make to yourself and others.

Keep a day to yourself
Schedule at least one day a week free from responsibilities. A day where you are the priority. You can wake up and do whatever you want — on your terms. This will make you feel you have control over your life, and give you some much needed downtime. It’s a chance for your mind to switch off for a while and reflect on the things you’ve learnt during the day.

3. Reframe

One of the many benefits of reflecting is having a frame of reference for overwhelm before it engulfs you again. Rather than your inner-alarm generating chaos and panic, as you’ve got the knowledge and skills to cope better, it will be a more muted and controlled warning because you’ve learnt from hindsight.

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