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Taming Overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed is a common problem these days. It feels like there’s just too much all of the time. Too many tasks and obligations, too much bad news, too much uncertainty and too much information. Thankfully, mindfulness can help us tame overwhelm so we can get back on track.

I’m in the midst of a series of conflict resolution retreats for two organizations, requiring that I basically write and plan a retreat a week, and the start of which coincided with the loss of a key employee, meaning I’ve suddenly added a lot of duties to my plate until I hire a replacement.

Last weekend, I made a list to try to map out what felt like a very busy upcoming week. Write, record and edit two podcasts, write and facilitate a retreat, schedule upcoming events, read a book for an interview on Thursday, prepare for an 8-hour program orientation mid-week and write a leadership blog. That’s all in addition to my regularly scheduled tasks, meetings and coaching sessions.

I had a lot of errands to run Saturday, so I set the list aside and focused on my personal life for the day. I got up at 5am on Sunday morning to start whittling down the list and instead, found myself just sitting and staring at the computer screen. I kept telling myself to get started, but it was as if my mind just wouldn’t cooperate. That’s overwhelm.

Overwhelm is the brain’s response to too much of something. Too much work, too much stress, too much emotion. It doesn’t matter if the something is positive or negative. Whether we’re overwhelmed by kindness, sadness, pressure, joy or stress, the effects are the same. The brain gets hijacked, making it impossible to think creatively or to be flexible, which makes it really difficult to figure out how to work our way through it. Overwhelm can even shut down our sensibility to ask for help.

So I’ve got too many demands in a short frame of time, and although I normally have the capacity to juggle multiple deadlines quite well, my perception of this week is that I may not have the resources to cope with what I’m facing. Interestingly, it’s perception that first triggers the brain to respond to a situation by flooding us with adrenaline and if that’s not working, it adds a good dose of cortisol. These are stress hormones and can actually add to the feelings of overwhelm. Fortunately, the solution is all about attention and where we focus it.

Just the times we’re living in generates overwhelm for a lot of people. We have constant health concerns, we’re facing extraordinary social upheaval, environmental disasters and political strife, and it’s all topped off with a good dose of economic uncertainty. V.U.C.A. describes the type of high-demand situations that can degrade our most powerful brain system which is our attention. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Sound familiar in your life?

Our attention system is complex and multidimensional, but we can learn to navigate VUCA events as well as any other situations putting us in a state of overwhelm. The reason our attention system is so important in resolving overwhelm is because there is far too much information coming at us every second of the day for our brains to process, so the attention system acts like our filter. It shines a spotlight on what it determines we’re most interested in or what we need to know to remain safe. When in overwhelm, our attention becomes so scattered due to stress or anxiety that it loses its capacity to stay focused.

When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to pile more stress on by ruminating. I indeed experienced that this morning, looking at the impossible list and then thinking about what next week holds. And then my upcoming trip the week after that popped into my head. I’ll have to do two weeks’ worth of work next week since I’ll be at a conference the following one. Needless to say, my anxiety rose as my mood plummeted. Many people also ruminate in the other direction, berating themselves for getting into their current situation, wishing they had done something different, or holding resentment over something someone else did or didn’t do that they can blame for their predicament. We’re really good at making ourselves feel really bad.

Fortunately, mindfulness helps tremendously with this situation. Attention determines our moment-to-moment experiences including what we feel, think, remember, perceive and what actions we take. I clearly used my mindfulness skills to tame my overwhelm or you wouldn’t be hearing this podcast right now.

The steps I took may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but the first thing I did was step out of my studio. I made my partner a big breakfast for his birthday and then cleaned the kitchen. Before you scream procrastination, in fact I was getting my attention focused on the present moment. I mindfully made pancakes, noticing every detail of the flour, melted butter and yes, even the mess I was making. I noticed the delectable smell of bacon, which I rarely have in the house. The bubbles in the pancakes as they cooked, the variations in color of the egg yolks and the joy on his face that I made him breakfast which is a rarity indeed. I then mindfully washed dishes and cleaned the countertops.

Then I went outside. I felt gratitude noticing the morning coolness, fully aware that it was going to be about 105 later in the day. A hummingbird flitted by and I watched it travel for a few seconds. Then I took a deep breath and returned to the studio to write the podcast. Now my attention was focused on what’s important. Writing the podcast. Not the list, not what may happen tomorrow or how many hours I’m short compared to estimated completion times. Just the writing. If you’re listening to this, I clearly got to the recording and editing, too. But to start, just the first step.

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

When we become aware of the present moment, we gain access to resources we may not have realized were with us all along. We rediscover the stillness at our core. We may not be able to change our situation, but mindfulness practices offer us the space to change our response to any situation. It changes our perception by recentering us in this moment and allowing all of the other stuff to recede into the background.

You don’t have to make pancakes from scratch to get recentered. If you’re struggling with overwhelm, try moving your body. You don’t have to drive to the gym, unless that motivates you. Simply stretch or take a short walk. Put on some music and dance around for a few minutes. The anxiety that accompanies overwhelm is our body’s way of saying, “Warning, I’m overloaded. I can’t manage this level of stress.” Movement helps release that built-up stress.

Mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety by settling our systems down, relaxing us and providing us with the space to observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental fashion. This reinforces that we are not those thoughts. The sometimes frenetic activity going on between our ears can become almost humorous when we allow there to be space between our true self and the thoughts we’re observing. As we recognize that it’s all just mental events flying by, activity that isn’t very meaningful but more like a shot of confetti from a cannon, we can feel reassured that we’re actually okay and even provide ourselves with some much needed self-compassion.

Restorative sleep plays an important role in reducing overwhelm and if you’re struggling with it, please listen to last week’s episode on the subject or try the stillness to sleep meditation in this week’s earlier episode. We all have nights where thoughts flood our minds when our heads hit the pillow, but don’t just let them run amok. Our brains need that sleep time to process all of the overload from the day in order to maintain and repair our minds and bodies, so take it seriously, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Practice strengthening your mindfulness skills throughout your day so that it kicks in automatically when overwhelm hits. Pay attention to your commute to and from work, noticing what you drive by. With each task you perform throughout your workday, try to notice details that you normally ignore. Eat each meal mindfully, paying acute attention to the textures, flavors, aromas and colors. Check in with yourself periodically through each day, noticing how you feel in that moment.

Keep in mind that mindfulness is not a replacement for mental health treatment. If you find that you are stuck in overwhelm and cannot focus your attention or get recentered, don’t hesitate to contact a professional for support. Likewise with meditation. For some, especially if there is a history of trauma or abuse, meditation practices may evoke memories and emotions which can feel upsetting or even retraumatizing, which will only add to your overwhelm. If that’s the case for you, you can skip the meditation or work with a therapist to explore other types of meditation. You can practice mindfulness without meditating, so you can still gain the health benefits it offers.

Dr. Bob Stahl, an expert in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction states that, “In essence, practicing mindfulness is a process of learning to trust and stay with feelings of discomfort rather than trying to escape from or analyze them. This often leads to a remarkable shift. Time and again, your feelings will show you everything you need to know about them and something you need to know for your own well-being.”

I spent a little over an hour cooking, cleaning and viewing my yard before I settled down to work. Studies show that when we’re focused on work, really paying attention in the moment, that we can get two to four times as much accomplished, which I did. The next time you tell yourself you don’t have time to take a break, to meditate, to move your body or do something else that will calm your overwhelm, think about that. I invested one hour to myself and gained 2 or 3 hours of productivity. That’s a pretty good deal.

Timber Hawkeye, author of Buddhist Boot Camp, says, “You can’t stop the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass.”

Are you ready for better weather? A shift in perception could clear the skies.

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