I’ve had quite a lot of practice at dealing with overwhelm over the years.
When I was younger, I was always so keen to be involved in everything and to do everything to my perfectionistic standards, that sometimes it all just became too much. I also had a tendency to optimistically think that everything would be easier, or take less time than it actually did. And, I didn’t plan for down time or leave any space in my calendar, so anything unexpected only added to the pressure. I still have those tendencies but I’m much wiser these days!
Then, there’s motherhood. Many women find adding motherhood to their life, overwhelming at some point. In this stage of life, overwhelm can be exacerbated by factors such as these:
- The stakes are high (your children’s lives and wellbeing).
- You care so deeply.
- It feels so personal.
- There’s shortage of external pressure and expectations.
- You’re figuring it out as you go and every child is different.
- Motherhood is all consuming and you have to be very intentional about cultivating and nurturing the other parts of your life.
- You can’t control your precious little loves. They are their own little people, who you can definitely influence and guide, but not control.
- There is plenty of “unexpected” in motherhood.
What I was doing wasn’t really working…
The good thing about having had to deal with overwhelm so many times over the years, is that I’ve become better and better at handling it.
In fact, I’ve learned to prevent it in the first place, a lot of the time. And then, at those times when overwhelm sneaks into my life, I can move through it fairly quickly, to regain a sense of direction, order and peace.
Want to know how?
By using a surprisingly counter-intuitive approach.
You see, my response to overwhelm used to be to resist the feelings, trying to convince myself that I could manage, and to take even more frenzied action (which was not at all helping me make any progress because I was too stressed and emotional to focus or make good decisions). I would be constantly “doing”, at all hours, without a break. Also, multitasking, to get as much done as possible. And lastly, I would put the to-do list first and myself last, because I didn’t have time to even think about myself until everything on the list was done. (Did anyone else get “work before play” drummed into them as a child?)
This approach only amplified the feelings of overwhelm and made me exhausted. I certainly wasn’t doing things to the best of my ability and I wasn’t enjoying it. I was on edge all the time, and minor issues became huge problems.
Not at all ideal.
You know what, lovely? There’s a better way to overcome overwhelm.
What I’ve learned, is that the things that I feel most inclined to do when I feel overwhelmed, are the exact opposite of the things that actually help me overcome overwhelm.
8 surprising and effective ways to overcome overwhelm
Here are 8 counter intuitive strategies you can use (I use them too!) to overcome overwhelm in your life.
1. Pause first, not action first
I used to think that I couldn’t possibly spare even 30 seconds to pause. But, I realise now, that taking a few minutes to pause and hit reset both mentally and emotionally, saves me time in the long run. It’s the first step to breaking free of the overwhelm. It stops me rushing into frenzied, reactive, ineffective action and helps me step into a more helpful and productive state.
So, pause. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine yourself breathing out the overwhelm and breathing in calm. Go for a walk around the block if you can, do something else to change your physical state for a few minutes. .
2. Accept, not resist
Denying or ignoring the fact that you are overwhelmed, will only keep you stuck in it longer. The best way to work through, and past, your feelings of overwhelm, is to accept them.
Accepting your feelings doesn’t make you weak or prove that you are failing. Your feelings are just feelings. They are valid and realm, but they are not YOU and they will pass. Sometimes it helps to name them and separate them from yourself; “I notice a feeling of overwhelm and stress within me.”
Then, extend yourself some self compassion, recognising that you are human and not alone in this experience; “It’s ok to feel overwhelmed. Many people feel this way at different times in their lives. I will get through this.”
3. Think “I have enough time”, not “I don’t have enough time”
This was a game changer for me. Your brain believes the messages it hears the most, so if you’re constantly telling yourself (and everyone else) that you don’t have enough time, your brain begins to see this as fact! This will send you into overwhelm overdrive!
Busyness is a mindset. Someone could have loads on their plate and still feel in flow and not busy at all, while someone else could have comparatively little on their plate and feel completely stretched beyond their limits. We all have the same amount of time. And when we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we’re usually not making the best use of our time (because we can’t focus or perform at our best).
You can do ANYTHING, but NOT EVERYTHING. You do have enough time. To do what matters most. Try telling yourself “I have enough time for the things that are important” as see what happens.
4. Do less, not more
I’ll say it again, because it’s so important; you can do ANYTHING, but NOT EVERYTHING. This is a prioritisation exercise. Instead of getting yourself in a frenzy trying to do everything, figure out what’s most important to you and focus on those things.
What do you do with the rest?
Delegate it to someone else, defer it until later, don’t do it at all, get someone to help you, or do it quicker, to a lesser standard. Save your precious time and attention for the things that really matter.
5. One thing at a time, not many
Multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are absolutely times when multitasking is effective and helpful (that’s when the tasks are simple and require low cognitive load). However, research has clearly shown, that when we multitask, we make more errors, miss important things, forget things more easily, achieve less and our brains are up to 40% slower. We only have a finite amount of attention available and switching between tasks consumes a lot of it!
So, to get more done, faster and better, do one thing at a time when it comes to the important and mentally challenging tasks.
6. Focus on the present, not the future
To be honest, you need to spend a little time focusing on the future, because the best way to overcome overwhelm is to schedule time for all the important things. That way you know that you have time allocated, and you can stop worrying about when you will be doing things. For me a plan = calm.
But once this plan is in place, you can focus on the present. When you’re working, focus on your work. When you’re spending quality time with your kids or partner, completely focus on that. When you’re running errands, allow yourself to be present in that. And so on.
Staying present helps us to stop the cycle of worrying about what might happen next, or how you will get everything done. You can’t do anything about tomorrow yet and you’ve already allocated time to deal with all the other important things. Stay in the present.
7. Done, not perfect
Oh boy, did I struggle with this one for the longest time. I’m proud to say that I finally do believe this to be true. Perfection is not required. When you’re overwhelmed and have a lot to get done, honestly examine the standards you’re holding yourself to. Are they realistic and necessary? Would a lesser standard still be acceptable? Are you holding yourself to a higher standard than everyone else? Done is better than perfect.
8. More self-care, not less
The times when you feel you have no time for self-care, is exactly when you need it the most.
Let’s be real though, your time is precious and you already have a jam packed schedule. That means that your self care has to be really impactful and purposeful. Forget the clichés, and go straight to what you need most right now, to be physically, mentally and emotionally strong.
Perhaps you need to protect your schedule, make sure you’re eating well and staying hydrated, that you’re getting enough sleep, exercising or meditating. Maybe you need to create some personal boundaries, ask for help, practice self compassion, acknowledge and accept your feelings, or find someone to talk to about how you’re managing.
Making space for self care (actually put it in your schedule, where appropriate) when you are overwhelmed prevents burn out, combats the negative effects of stress and helps you refocus and get things done.
It’s not a reward for when everything is done (although you can have that too!) and it’s not something that can be dropped off the list altogether. Self care is part of the process of overcoming overwhelm.
So, there you have it, lovely. 8 counter-intuitive, yet effective, strategies to help you overcome overwhelm. Did any of those surprise you?
It isn’t necessarily easy to put these counter-intuitive strategies to work when you’re in the midst of overwhelm, but even starting with just 1 can help.
Which of these strategies will you try?