How to deal with overwhelm

Overwhelm is a state we can experience when our demands exceed our ability to cope. At one end of the spectrum, overwhelm is normal. All of us have those days when life gets on top of us. Where matters become more serious is when moments of overwhelm taken on a more permanent look. Although a well-used cliché, modern life makes becoming overwhelmed all too easy. We can be a sudden personal or professional change away from struggling to balance our lives. However, armed with a good understanding of overwhelm and the unique set of factors that make us individually vulnerable, it is entirely possible to know how to deal with overwhelm. In my blog, I look at six approaches to help you better understand and respond to this current mental health and wellbeing condition.

How to deal with overwhelm. Photo of confident lady.

How to deal with overwhelm: having the right conversations

One of the primary sources of overwhelm is our conversations, those we have with ourselves (self-talk) and those we have with others. Conversations can directly cause overwhelm when we or others expect too much of us, and they can be an indirect cause when they fail to help us address it. Therefore, the ability to construct helpful conversations in advance of or during highly demanding situations can make the difference between becoming overwhelmed or not. People who regularly experience overwhelm are often unable to access supportive conversations with their words and language, acting like fans to flames. Knowing how to talk to ourselves and getting others to talk to us is crucial in learning how to deal with overwhelm. Do the activity in the section below to help you understand whether your conversations are part of the problem.

Conversations With Impact Questionnaires

Start by listing your existing conversations, including your self-talk. Then, looking at the list below, consider the importance of each quality or characteristic to you. Choose a number between 1 and 7 (1=none at all, 7=all that you need) that reflects the degree to which a conversation possesses each quality or characteristic. If one is not essential to you, i.e. it makes no difference one way or the other, give it a 7. For those that are important to you, score it appropriately. For your self-talk, replace ‘the person’ with ‘myself’ for the first statement, and then replace the pronouns for the others. For example, ‘I trust myself,’ ‘I understand myself and what I need from me.’

  • I trust the person
  • They understand me and what I need from them
  • I feel respected by them
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • They do not judge me and accept me for who I am
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • The conversation follows my agenda, not theirs
  • They believe in me and my potential for change
  • They give me the time that I need
  • I feel challenged by them in a good way
  • They respect my need for confidentiality
  • I feel they genuinely listen to me
  • I can say what I really want to them
  • They are truly interested in me
  • They help me to make sense of my situation
  • They help me set clear, realistic goals and strategies
  • They help me find solutions
  • My conversations with them make a difference
  • They have the X-Factor

What did you discover? Are you having conversations (low scores) that are causing you directly or indirectly to feel overwhelmed? If you aren’t, then great, but if you are, how can you change your conversations to find more of the qualities and characteristics you need? 

The role of emotions

Feeling confident in knowing how to deal with overwhelm means being able to make sense of it when it happens or threatens to happen. Human beings are a sense-making species, and we hate not knowing. Luckily, we all have emotions, an in-built ‘sense-making’ system. Emotions are messages sent from what I call our ’emotional self’ containing important information about the state of our lives. Understood in this way:

  • difficult emotions, like overwhelm, are expressions of concern by our emotional self that we are not flourishing in life
  • positive emotions are expressions of contentment that we are

It is essential to know that our emotional self is always trying to be helpful, even if it has a funny way of going about it because their role is to help us flourish. When it comes to overwhelm, therefore, we can understand it as a really helpful message delivered in a really unhelpful way, and there are two parts to this message our emotional self needs us to know:

  • What are the causes of our overwhelm?
  • What are its solutions?

How we respond to these questions determines whether our emotional self increases or decreases the overwhelm it sends, so it is vital that we respond quickly and positively. And The Meaning Map activity below can help you to do just that.

The Meaning Map

The Meaning Map connects emotions like overwhelm to key life areas. Completing the activity will help you identify which of your areas might be causing overwhelm and therefore which to focus on.

Using a 0-10 scale (0=an area in great shape, 10=an area in very poor shape), choose a number that captures how you feel about each of the areas listed below. 

  • Identity: self-esteem/worth, role and status
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Work/Career/professional
  • Health (mental and/or physical)
  • Financial
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural
  • Environment
  • Past, present or future

As a general rule, scores of:

  • 7 or more indicate areas highly likely to cause or be causing overwhelm
  • 5 or 6 indicate areas that will need attention to stop them from deteriorating further and causing overwhelm
  • 4 or below indicate very positive areas that won’t be causing overwhelm

What did you discover? Has the activity helped you to better understand overwhelm, and even if you are experiencing it?

Understanding and working with patterns

Learning how to deal with overwhelm means getting to grips with the patterns of thought, behaviour, feeling and relating that can underpin and drive it. Common patterns that result in overwhelm include those driven by perfectionism, people-pleasing and low self-esteem. For example, overwhelm at work could go something like this:

  • Thought: “I am not good enough, so I must say yes to every request.”
  • Behaviour: “I must be the first in the office and the last out.”
  • Feeling: “When other people praise me for taking so much on, it makes me feel good.”
  • Relating: “If I say no to people, they might not consider me for promotion.”

If you look closely at the above examples, they all relate to the person, not the situation. This distinction is important because knowing how to deal with overwhelm means knowing whether ours is caused by internal patterns (perfectionism, people-pleasing, low self-esteem) or external ones (high-pressure workplaces, caring responsibilities). We risk misdiagnosing the problem and choosing the wrong solutions if we don’t know. To diagnose correctly, we need a detailed picture of our patterns. Once we have this, we will see the source of our overwhelm and how to deal with it, e.g. do we need to boost our self-esteem or change jobs?

The Pattern Builder activity below can help you build your picture.

The Pattern Builder

Answering the questions below can help you build a detailed picture of your patterns so you can better understand your overwhelm. 

  1. When, where and with whom were you when your overwhelm started?
  2. What stressors or changes were occurring in your life when you became overwhelmed?
  3. How long has your overwhelm lasted? And how long does each episode of overwhelm last?
  4. What significant persons are present or absent when your overwhelm is most noticeable?
  5. Where are you when you feel overwhelmed, e.g. at home, at work, or outside?
  6. Can you identify when you go from not feeling overwhelmed to feeling so? What stages do you go through?
  7. Are there times, even brief ones, when your overwhelm disappears and you feel truly in control?
  8. What do you think other people know about your overwhelm, e.g. friends, family or colleagues?
  9. What are your beliefs about your overwhelm? For example, I can never deal with it, or it’s my fault?

The Pattern Builder activity is worth repeating as doing so can help you to build up a helpful level of detail that you can act upon.

The power of acceptance – Part 1

There is no denying that being overwhelmed is an unpleasant state to be in and ideally, we avoid becoming so in the first place. However, when this proves impossible, we can do ourselves a huge favour by adopting the following stance: total acceptance. Fairly or unfairly, human beings have no choice but to accept their current reality. When we can’t or won’t, we open up what I call a Fantasy-Reality Gap, which is the difference between:

  • how we think things are, e.g., ‘I am coping’, and how they actually are ‘I am not coping’
  • what we think we are doing, e.g., ‘I am working sustainably’, and what we are actually doing ‘I am working unsustainably’
  • how we think our lives are, e.g., ‘I am on track in life’, and how our lives actually are ‘I have come off the rails’

The bigger the FRG, the more trouble we are in because FRGs represent unsustainable ways of living. Overwhelm-related FRGs can be hard to spot because they often begin with positive intentions, such as performing well at work or supporting others. This makes overwhelm an invidious condition because its early stages come positively camouflaged. Acceptance cuts through the camouflage by helping us identify and acknowledge the tell-tale signs of an overwhelm FRG instead of denying or suppressing them.

The power of acceptance – Part 2

But why should we accept? Doesn’t acceptance mean giving up on performing well at work or being able to support others? No, because acceptance is not resignation but the first stage of transformation. Accepting we are in danger of working or living with an overwhelm FRG equips us with the means to do something about it – like seeing the cliff edge before going over it rather than after we have done so. Fortunately, there are many signs and clues of an ‘Overwhelm FRG’ that we can tune into, which I have listed below.

Signs of an overwhelm FRG:

  • poor mental health and wellbeing
  • self-criticism/negative self-talk
  • negative thoughts, unwanted intrusive thoughts
  • negative, self-limiting beliefs
  • low self-esteem, self-worth and low confidence
  • negative memories
  • tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion, poor motivation, poor sleep
  • avoidance, procrastination, perfectionism, fear of failure
  • impatience, frustration
  • obsession, compulsion, addiction
  • self-sabotage, denial, secrecy, gameplaying
  • poor self-care/neglect
  • criticism, judgment
  • blurred boundaries, people-pleasing
  • comparisons with others, jealousy/envy
  • dismissal and intolerance of others, arrogance/self-promotion
  • withdrawn, avoidant, argumentative, irritable, blaming others

Rising to the challenge

Overwhelm happens when life becomes too challenging, so to avoid or prevent this outcome, we need to know how to reduce the level of challenge we face. And the way to achieve this is by understanding the nature of challenge. Too much challenge, the type that makes us vulnerable to overwhelm, is always a matter of resources. When we don’t have enough of what we need, we become overwhelmed. Have a look at the list of resources below and consider the questions. Then, having reflected, do the activity in the next section.

  • RESOURCES (information, knowledge, technology) Do I have what I need? If I don’t, can I find them myself, or does someone else have what I need?
  • SKILLS & ABILITIES Do I have what is required? If I don’t, can I develop them independently, or will I need support?
  • CONFIDENCE & BELIEF Do I have enough? If I don’t, can I build these qualities on my own, or will I need the backing of others?
  • WELLBEING Do I feel resilient? If I don’t, can I increase my own resilience, or will I need encouragement?
  • SUPPORT Do I have enough around me? If I don’t, where does it exist, and who will provide it?
  • MOTIVATION Do I feel sufficiently energised? If I don’t, can I galvanise myself, or will I need inspiration from colleagues and peers?
  • TIME Do I have spare capacity? If I don’t, can I create it individually, or will I need to collaborate?
  • ENVIRONMENT Am I in the right environment? If not, can I change my existing surroundings, or do I need to be somewhere else?
  • STRATEGY Do I have the right strategy? If I don’t, how will I acquire it? On my own or through co-operation?

The Challenge Audit

To establish if you have enough of the resources you need and using a 0-10 scale (0=none at all, 10=all that you need), choose a number that represents how much of each of the above resources you possess. As a general rule:

  • Scores of seven or above indicate you have an ample amount of a resource
  • Scores of five or six indicate you have some of a resource but will need to obtain more of it soon
  • Scores of four or below indicate you are severely lacking in a resource and need to acquire more of it immediately

What did you discover? If you have more high scores than low ones, consider whether you are, in fact, experiencing or starting to experience overwhelm. And if so, what resources do you need more of to learn how to deal with overwhelm?

How to deal with overwhelm: the art of transformation

It is undeniable that we are transforming, whether we like it or not, otherwise known as the ageing process. Of all processes, this is the one to be in control of, but to be so in ways that prevent overwhelm, we need to have what I call a ‘helpful’ approach to transformation. Ok, I hear you ask, what does a helpful approach look like? And what does an unhelpful one look like, too, for that matter?! I have spent many years observing how people transform themselves personally and professionally in sustainable and unsustainable ways, and I think they look a little like this:

A Helpful Model of Transformation:

  • Acceptance of one’s current reality and a commitment to doing what it takes
  • Time and patience
  • Positivity – towards oneself and from others
  • Self-belief and trust in one’s abilities
  • Turning setbacks into opportunities
  • Useful ideas, a sound knowledge & effective resources
  • Skills – practice and repetition
  • Alignment of realistic goals with effective strategies
  • The right type of support and encouragement
  • Positive emotions that help rather than hinder
  • A resilient mindset

An Unhelpful Model of Transformation

  • Impatience and the need for a ‘quick fix’
  • Unrealistic goals and expectations
  • Low self-esteem/self-worth
  • Perfectionism, self-sabotage & self-criticism
  • A lack of knowledge, information and resources
  • Erroneous ideas
  • A lack of self-belief
  • Poor motivation
  • The right goal, but the wrong strategy
  • Not enough support or the wrong type of support
  • Difficult emotions

Which approach did you relate to the most? If it is the unhelpful approach, you will be more prone to overwhelm. Learning how to deal with overwhelm means having a helpful approach to transformation.

How to deal with overwhelm: getting support

I hope you have enjoyed my blog, How to deal with overwhelm. If you would like support, I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Programmes have helped many people put their overwhelm behind them (read my testimonials).

To book an initial consultation, visit my Make a Booking page. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge and insight than you had before.

Here is another good article on overwhelm.