7 min read
17 Jul

Today let’s talk about overwhelm and provide some top tips for managing it. 

It may seem counter-intuitive to discuss being overwhelmed during the summer months, a period of holiday time for many. But it’s not. This is the perfect time for three reasons. First, holiday provides reflection time which is ideal for pondering better life habits. Second, feeling overwhelmed can come at any time, and even more so with heat, so the sooner we can be prepared the better. Third, this summer in particular brings more mounted stress than usual for many of us, and for graduates and school aged children we know. Exam results and opportunities for all of our next steps have been affected by the pandemic. Let’s absorb these practical pointers now to best help ourselves and our loved ones manage feeling overwhelmed. 

We are all too familiar with this dreadful emotion. Its intensity feels uncontrollable and overpowering when is appears, as if we are sinking or choking. However, as unpleasant as it is, we simply can’t avoid it in today’s world. Dealing with overwhelm seems to be a natural and recurring part of our everyday life. Because of this it makes sense to take a moment to better understand the causes of feeling overwhelmed and learn some top tips on how we can best manage it. These pointers can help us all be our best.  

A familiar feeling 

Stress is acceptable in manageable doses. It can create a surge in intensity of focus which helps us accomplish a task. However, a tad too much and the effects are disastrous. The weight of being pulled down overpowers and productivity can crumble. The worse yet is that no matter how much life experience we have, these feelings of overwhelm will recur. 

Statistics say that over 90% of us have felt a sense of overwhelm at least once in the last 7-10 days. Overwhelm can take hold like a surging wave instigated by something we could predict - like juggling too many responsibilities at the same time - or it can strike suddenly,  triggered by something not forecasted. Overwhelm can also lurk as a constant, low-grade threat underlying the surface, present but not threatening until too late… ominous like a vine growing around our necks, slowly tightening. 

Either way, overwhelm is unwelcome and unpleasant. But it could be manageable. Let’s now discuss how our brain reacts to overwhelm and then provide helpful tips on effectively tackling it. 

What happens in our brain 

When we are feeling close to overwhelm, our brain seeks to resolve the situation and calm us down. I’m not a doctor but was has been explained to me by a Biologist is that is two things happen when we are feeling overwhelmed. Stick with me for this basic biology class because it explains a lot about our behaviour when in this state. 

First, our brain tries to reduce the demand on it, so extraneous noises which we can usually tolerate become unbearable (like footballs being hit onto your wall which made me lose my cool with one kid last week. I still feel bad about that). 

Second, when under pressure our brain relies more on fast, instinctive systems to make decisions rather than the slower analytic processes because they make less demand on our already full head. It takes short cuts, which can make us more likely to fall back on old habits and patterns which in turn may be unhelpful and trigger difficult emotions. 

Another result of switching to the fast, analytic process is that our capacity to be rational and problem solve decreases. Things feel simpler: good or bad, positive or negative, with less grey or in between variations. Of course, life isn’t really that simple. Things are rarely as bad as they feel. 

All this results in our feeling very negative when we hit overwhelm. It’s important to remember that this is a symptom of overwhelm and not a reality. When we find our calmer place and our thinking brain kicks back in, things will feel more hopeful. When we take a breather, we literally feel better. 

So when the quicksand level is rising….or the vine around our neck is tightening… it literally is best to have a time out. Let’s talk about ways to tackle overwhelm in a minute. 

OK, so we understand now what happens to our brain when we are overwhelmed. We also get that we all live in a world where this feeling will reoccur.  Let’s benefit by better equipping ourselves for dealing with this feeling. Next, let’s understand its causes and highlight some helpful pointers on what to remember when we are feeling overwhelmed. 

Causes of overwhelm 

We all must learn to recognise our individual triggers which can make us feel overwhelmed. A classic for many is having too many balls in the air. Some of us may like being mega-busy. However, if we are not mindful, being occupied and engaged can quickly descend into feeling submerged in stress. I will share my personal experience of feeling overwhelmed last week at the end of this feature. 

Other common triggers for feeling overwhelmed include emotional trauma, financial stress, an anniversary of a loss or emotional benchmark, family friction, spending too much time alone, being yelled at or in a hostile environment, sexual harassment, health issues, our own internal expectations and dealing with change -  a big one now that our routines and future plans have been affected by the pandemic. 

The bottom line is that our every day life can and probably will include at least some of these stress inducers. So, let’s prepare ourselves and our families. 

Here are some practical pointers on how to manage overwhelm and stay away from the quicksand. 


1. Remind Ourselves these points: When overwhelm sets in, let’s first remind ourselves of the following nuggets of wisdom to help ease the feeling. 

For ease of recall, I have labelled them “The R-P-G-Ps”” . I know, seems silly, but trust me having a mnemonic helps recall.  Please feel free to offer any better memory triggers in the comments. OK, here they are: 

* Real. Be aware these feelings are real: It’s our mind’s way of telling us we need to slow down if we want to live a healthier life. We should listen to this warning. 

* Positivity. Get rid of the negativity. Let’s remember while our feelings are real, overwhelm is a simply jumbling of our thoughts, not a collapse of our life. We all have the power to control our thoughts. We can thus manage who we are and where and what we want to be. That’s important to understand and believe. When we are feeling overwhelmed, let’s remind ourselves that our whole life isn’t falling apart, just our thoughts are confused and need a rejigging, a re-prioritisation. We need to take some time out to purge negative, self-deprecating emotions and thoughts. As we do this, we will feel renewed energy and more invigorated to take on the day.

 * Gratitude. This is important. The feeling of being grateful and appreciative is vital for mental health. Coaches often suggest clients write journals recalling what they are grateful for. This help being in “the present”. Gaining perspective on our problems is also important and can also augment gratitude. Perspective and gratitude are topics I will write more about. 

* Proactivity. When we feel overwhelmed, let’s first remind ourselves the “R-P-G-Ps” and then progress to the following pointers to practically and proactively manage and emerge from this feeling. 

2. Prioritise and Divide into Manageable Chunks: 

If thoughts and worries interrupt our daily rest time or barge into our usual activities, it’s time to prioritise. Let’s stop, breathe deeply and think of all the issues that are swirling in our heads that need to be tackled. 

I find making lists helps. This process allows us to identify the plethora of stuff that needs to be addressed and the act of writing it all down is cathartic. I swear there is some magical meditative power for me in list making. I will let you in on a secret - sometimes I add quick tasks to my lists just to enjoy the therapeutic act of crossing off! 

Now we’ve made a list, let’s segment the whole seemingly mammoth mess into smaller, more manageable chunks. That’s the key: identify, divide (or segment) and conquer. When we understand all the components of our overwhelm and what needs to be done first, the job becomes do-able. 

3. Communicate: 

Communication is important so we don’t feel isolated. Let’s tell other people how we are feeling. Share. Vent. Have a conversation, monologue, dumping session. This helps reduce our stress levels which both eases the sense of overwhelm and provides the breathing room and fresh perspective needed. 

Remember to balance communication with the adage “less talking, more doing”. We need to be aware that talking gets us only so far. At some point, proactivity needs to start. One example is a friend who volunteers at a homeless shelter. This allows her to contribute, enhances her gratitude and perspective, and also helps the shelter. Analysis through communication is important but is not an excuse for procrastination. 

4. Delegate: 

Delegation is a key to survival. Often this sense of overwhelm is a result of feeling there is just too much to do. If this is the case, is there someone at home or work that we can delegate some tasks to? While it’s easy to think “it’s just quicker if I do it”, that doesn’t help us nor teach the others around us. We must learn to ask for and accept help. 

5. Know our boundaries: 

We must remember our boundaries and keep them. Remember the expression “saying yes to someone else can be saying no to yourself”. Whether it’s accepting another project at work or social invitation or task we’re simply not keen on, saying yes commits us. Instead, perhaps we follow the strategy of “let me get back to you”, decide on our own time scale what we want to do, and then revert … but remember to! 

6. Make time for daily re-charge: 

For those of you who know me, one of the mantras I swear by is “Remember Recharge Time”. We cannot be any good to others if we are depleted. Staying recharged helps us both better manage when feeling overwhelmed and also prevent its surge. Let’s prioritise getting our personal reflection time to refuel, both to manage overwhelm when it surges and to also prevent its approach.  Let’s get some fresh air, vitamin D3 and exercise, or take a nap, see a friend or spend some time on our hobby. Do what it takes to recharge. 

7. Warning signs: 

Let’s try to listen to our warning signs and try to head off any eruption. This loops back to knowing your triggers and paying attention to them. I’ll admit that I’m rubbish at this. 

I know one of my triggers for feeling overwhelmed is juggling too much. If this goes on for too long or is too extreme, I invariably end up making avoidable mistakes which in turn grow my stress to overwhelm. This is exactly what happened to me this week. And one of the reasons I decided to write about Overwhelm. 

May I relay a personal story? 

Last week, I found keeping all the balls in the air of my current projects and responsibilities more challenging than usual. I adore my jobs, my blogs, my family, my commitments,  but sometimes there simply isn’t enough hours in the day to do it all. I know we women are fantastic at multitasking but juggling 400 balls in the air can be just too much. I needed to reduce my sleep and omit all personal refuel time to meet some deadlines. That was a mistake. On top of that mess, I also an dealing with the added challenge of no useable kitchen nor office and dealing with lots of noise due to repair work from a flood (that’s another story). Add to that, both maternal stress - as some of my kids are going through difficult times-  and daughter stress, as my mother is too far away and is facing some challenges of ageing without me. Argh! Overwhelm! I kept going but then predictably made a stupid mistake and then the unwelcome feeling of overwhelm arrived. 

Here’s the mistake: I published last week’s post on living near The Championship on Friday to coincide with the Wimbledon tennis finals’ weekend. However, I made a technical error when sending it to my subscribers and emailed it as a test so it wasn’t sent.  To make matters worse, I didn’t realise this until 5 days later. Gulp! Overwhelm set in…. 

All the good intention and hard work to be current in my post was for nothing! I know the blog was posted on my website on time as I had planned, but I always email my subscribers before to give them first access.  Not this time. Nertz! Drats! Crapola! Neither I nor anyone on my team my caught my mistake and I may have disappointed my subscribers! That is completely unacceptable to me. Insert big poo emoji. 

I felt the overwhelm envelop me and decided to practice my training summarised above. And guess what … it worked! Thank Heavens! I gained perspective and realised it’s OK to be fallible. Learn from  your mistakes and learn to listen to the warning signs. I realise a technical problem isn’t the end of the world, but at that moment my judgement was jumbled, my stresses high and it seemed to be a disaster. 

Now I still need to deal with the lack of a kitchen and office space, and all the stresses from being in the sandwich generation (that’s definitely a future topic I will write about - are you interested?), but I know I can and will. I am prioritising and chipping away at all these problems. Slowly but surely. 

These practical pointers helped me get through a moment of overwhelm, learn from it, and go on stronger and more prepared for next time. They can also help you and your loved ones. Good luck! 

Now it’s time for some refuel time, a walk with a friend and then a chocolate cookie... or two. Life is good once again. 

Wishing you all a peaceful, overwhelm-free, contented and productive week. 

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