How often do you feel overwhelmed?

  • At work?
  • In life?

Would it be most days? Every day? All the time?!?

How do you respond when you feel overwhelmed?

  • Do you speed up and try to do everything faster?
  • Do you ask for help or let someone know you are feeling overwhelmed?
  • Or do you give up and avoid everything?
  • Or focus on something/anything you know you can make progress on, just to get some sense of achievement or satisfaction?

Are some ways of responding better than others?

Most definitely. The science of our brain chemistry tells us that when we feel overwhelmed, we switch into adrenalin mode – flight or fight or freeze. In this mode, our cognitive focus will narrow – we will focus on the “danger” that is immediately in front of us. You may have experienced this as “tunnel vision”, or the sense that you “can’t see the wood for the trees”. This is an accurate assessment. You actually can’t – your brain is focusing only on the danger and how the heck to get out of it.

It’s important then to pay attention to the overwhelm rather than ignoring it. (Ignoring can be helpful only if you can get sufficiently absorbed in something else that distracts you and therefore gets you out of the overwhelm.)

In general, the best strategy for coping with the overwhelm is to do something to calm your adrenalin response, and help your brain engage its “big picture” focus again.

What works?

  • Something active (to use up the adrenalin), like a fast walk or run or a gym workout
  • A mind-body session – yoga or pilates or tai chi – which helps your mind to calm as well as your body
  • Slow diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes (or longer if necessary). Belly breathing helps to dial back the adrenalin response also and switch your body into a relaxation response
  • Focused cognitive distraction – difficult crossword puzzles that you need to concentrate on, or having a conversation in a language that is unfamiliar to you, or counting backwards by 2.5 from 7653….it doesn’t matter what it is, anything where you have to pay attention
  • Writing and prioritising a to-do list can act as a helpful distraction also, especially if it’s long enough!
  • Doing something to get a “hit” of positive emotion. Experiencing a sense of achievement or satisfaction or pride or gratitude helps our body and brain to move out of adrenalin mode. Sharing a joke with a colleague or helping someone out or pausing to pay attention to something we are grateful for can seem like an odd thing to do when we are frantic, but it works.

Sometimes we need to try one or two or more strategies, especially if the overwhelm is strong, to dial the emotional intensity down. You may want to talk with friends or colleagues about what works for them to get other ideas.

Once you have tested some strategies and found what works, you may want to make a note in your calendar or on your phone to remind you, so they’re there ready, next time the overwhelm hits.