The increasing pace of our work and home lives is making the constant drive to meet tighter deadlines and deliverables all the more difficult to cope with. Even usually high achievers can be stricken with feeling overloaded and not being able to produce or function.
Overwhelm can swamp us when we have a major event to plan, a huge project, a long to-do list, an unexpected life change, a stressful relationship, etc. The looming demands are mixed up with the worry that we’ll lose our jobs, disappoint others, be a failure, and just not be good enough. In this state, we may feel completely incapable of doing any of the work and things we normally are able to do. We can feel like we are being swallowed up or trapped in a tight space.
Feeling overburdened can manifest as strong emotion, worry, helplessness, irritability, crying, lashing out, and panic attacks. Its physical sensations resemble anxiety symptoms like sweating, tingling, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
The first step to overcoming overwhelm is to acknowledge your feelings and then, out of self-compassion, give yourself a few hours, or if possible a day or two to rest and regroup before jumping in.
Try out these steps to ease your burden:
Focus on Now
Feeling overwhelmed is tied to anxiety, worry, and increased stress. Anxiety focuses the mind into the future by worrying about what may or may not happen in the next hour or months from now. By doing that we neglect the present moment. Grounding your mind in the present blocks runaway future-oriented thoughts.
Keep the mind anchored in the now by using the breath as an object of focus, or choose a physical or sensory sensation as your focus. Bring all your attention and actively notice the sights in your room, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and even taste for e.g. your coffee. Or you can keep the mind focused on just thinking about your next small step, for instance read and focus on this report now. It is also important to do only one task at a time; this focuses the mind on the present. Conversely multitasking is actually ineffective and inefficient, as it lacks focus and drains your energy.
Easy Does It
With a large project or huge task looming over you, it is easy to feel daunted. Begin by taking a few calming deep breaths, and start to figure out how to best apportion out the deadlines and deliverables. Set up daily, weekly, or even monthly due dates; designate tasks if you are able to, and then draw up daily task lists to help you meet those deadlines. Keep these to do lists to a manageable size. Carefully prioritize only what needs doing.
Break up tasks into like activities for greater efficiency: group phone calls into one set, writing activities into another group, shopping trips in another, and so on. Doing this helps the brain function more efficiently because it is not having to switch often between different types of tasks. You will feel less tired too.
The clearest indicator of escalating stress is your breath. Stress causes us to breathe shallowly, which means we aren’t taking deep long breaths into our belly, but are mostly breathing into the chest. Get into the habit of noticing how you are breathing throughout the day.
A very good routine to start your day is to sit at your desk, and while your computer is booting up, to close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your belly (below the navel). Single pointedly focus your attention on the breath rising and falling at this part of your body. When thoughts pop in, notice them, and go back to the breath. Do this for 5 minutes before, during, and after work. It will do wonders for calming your nervous system, and clearing your mind to help you be efficient and effective throughout the day.
Change Your Thinking
Believing that you won’t be able to cope or manage stressful situations can trigger feelings of overwhelm. These are so powerful that they can completely overpower our mind and emotions. And if we have unrealistic thoughts or feel powerless or hopeless, then our stress skyrockets and our ability to act or figure out solutions is impacted.
Therefore it is very important to become familiar with your thoughts. What kind of thoughts regularly run through your head? Is your mind full of complicated and unrealistic ones? Are your thoughts positive and affirming? Negative and demoralizing?
Before you can formulate positive thoughts to counter the unhelpful ones, you must question the validity of the original thought (your usual ruminations). Follow that up with a question like, does this idea/belief benefit me? Depending on your answers, you can then create realistic thoughts that will boost your emotions. For example, if you fear you won’t succeed, that can be changed to “I’ll do my best”, or “I’ll learn and study what it takes to succeed”, or “I’ll tackle this in stages so I can eventually succeed”.
Remember there will always be demands, so be mindful of your own needs and health and try to strike some balance.
May your mind be free and spacious.