Imagine you're at the center of a bustling circus, and you're the star performer. The ringmaster hands you a set of brightly colored balls, each representing a different aspect of your life—work, family, social commitments, and personal goals. Your task is to keep
all these balls in the air while the audience watches in anticipation.
When you are on your game, it can be exhilarating. You feel in control. You are confident and you've juggled these balls before, so you know you can handle it. The ringmaster knows you can handle it. He's seen this act a thousand times before. He starts to add more balls. The pressure builds. The balls represent something new-- unexpected demands, obligations, other people's expectations, your own internal expectations. Pretty soon the juggling act feels like too much.
All of us face those moments where life feels like a whirlwind and we barely have time to keep up. Overwhelm can come from other places as well. Too much stimuli, feeling unwell and fatigued, learning new things and needing time to process, not having great skills to prioritize and plan how to manage all the requests and expectations.
Overwhelm shows up in so many ways. What would you see in yourself or in others? Here are some things that can happen. You might experience others that you can add to the list.
Mental chaos - difficulty focusing, racing thoughts, feelings of urgency and pressure, difficulty making decisions, feeling stuck and unable to take action.
Physical symptoms - tight chest or muscles, fatigue, headache, increased sensory sensitivities, stomach ache and digestive issues and even increase or decrease in pain responses.
Changing emotions - sometimes swinging through many, or just having up and down emotions. Someone might be very emotionally reactive in this state. Things that seem little could feel very large. The sense of control is evaporating and can leave someone feeling quite vulnerable. Your mind can be sending you distress signals. Some people start to have threat responses when feeling very overwhelmed.
Dealing with overwhelm can feel out of reach in the middle of it. Preparing and anticipating is one strategy. Learning skills to use in the middle of a difficult moment (or two) can be enough to get you to a place where you feel safe or settled. Try some of these and see what might work for you:
Self awareness - pay attention to what your nervous system does in different situations. Have you noticed that you get stressed in busy environments? Do you gravitate to a specific kind of support? Is there a task you need to do but avoid it because there is something that feels like a great barrier? Knowing yourself and your triggers can help you craft things to make it easier to manage in those settings.
Planning for triggers - imagine that loud noises are difficult for you. Could you wear headphones when in those settings? Could you wait for a quieter time to enter that environment? Can your boss provide accommodations to you to work in a less noisy area? What might be some things that add to your overwhelm that you can create controls for?
Prioritizing and Delegating - when we are overwhelmed, it can be paralyzing. Holding on to all the tasks and demands can be very counter productive. Let someone know you need help. Find out what tasks you can get someone else to do. Prioritize the most urgent if you can. If you can't, tackle the easiest task first. Sometimes momentum can carry us when we feel success in completing one task and are then able to move on to another.
Seek support - in addition to asking for help to complete tasks, sharing your feelings and experiences can be a big relief. Knowing that someone else understands what you are going through can be validating. If you are someone who has executive functioning challenges such as planning and organizing, short term memory or anything that impacts your ideal functioning, find ways to get help or accommodations for those needs.
Self-Care - even circus performers need to rest and rejuvenate. Maintain your nourishment, drink water, get sufficient sleep. Know that when you are stressed, your brain becomes like a sponge and you might need more water than you would normally drink. Make self care a priority. You can't meet those obligations, help others or make good decisions if you are emotionally or physically depleted.
Set boundaries - sometimes this is the hardest one of all. Sometimes it feels like we are the only ones to do the task set in front of us. Learn what you would need to do to stop yourself from taking on too much. If you think no one can do the task but you, ask yourself if you have always known how to do this task? I'm guessing not. If you learned it, someone else will be able to learn it too. It's okay to say no to protect your own well-being. Saying yes might be the sprint to the end, but saying no might allow you to finish a marathon, because you will have the stamina to carry on.
Overwhelm might be common for all of us, but it is not a state we want to live in. Learning about yourself, your triggers, the strategies that work best for you to maintain that sense of control and competence, can keep those feelings of overwhelm at bay.