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What to do when you're overwhelmed

What is Overwhelm?

Everyone experiences the pressures of everyday life. Juggling family, friends, work, relationships, social commitments, our homes, our health and trying to fit in time for yourself can sometimes feel like too much and lead to overwhelm.

You might have so much going on that the accumulation of stressors piles up on you, and/or you might be going through something difficult or stressful that’s pushed you past your ability to cope.

Overwhelm happens when everything seems too much and your emotional or cognitive stress levels get to the point where you don’t have the mental energy to deal with things, leaving you feeling unable to function.

There’s a difference between stress and overwhelm. When we’re stressed, we feel a lot of pressure, but we can handle it. We know what actions to take to fix it. We can take on those actions, even if they cause us concern or worry. Overwhelm is when you get past this point and you’re unable to cope.

Most of the time feeling overwhelmed passes quickly. However feeling overwhelmed on a regular or prolonged basis can have a powerful effect on your mental state and stops your usual relaxation techniques from providing you with relief. It can quickly lead to burnout.

Signs you’re overwhelmed

  • Cognitive fatigue, mental slowness, confusion, distraction and procrastination

  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking rationally, making decisions and solving problems

  • A racing mind, overthinking, ruminating, increased anxiety, an urge to run away or bury your head in the sand

  • Feeling paralysed, unable to function, not knowing where to begin. Even simple tasks can feel impossible. This is your nervous system going into a 'freeze' response

  • Disproportionate reactions: you may overreact to minor stressors

  • Mood changes: you may feel angry, irritable, anxious, hopeless, helpless, pessimistic and cry easily

  • Withdrawal: you may find yourself distancing yourself or withdrawing from friends and family. You may feel like they can’t help you or understand what you’re going through. You may also feel you don't want to be a burden and share how you're feeling

  • Physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, cramps, an upset stomach, or other aches and pains. I always start with a twitchy eyelid when I'm overwhelmed!

These effects can leave us feeling even more overwhelmed. So what can you do?

How to cope when overwhelmed

Here are some coping strategies for overwhelm

  • In the moment when you feel completely overwhelmed and unable to function - stop, pause, breathe, do nothing, take a break, go for a walk in nature and then take stock

  • Give yourself grace and be kind. Remember, when you're feeling overwhelmed it can feel all consuming and like you'll never break the cycle of feeling this way. You will break the cycle like all the times before, this feeling is temporary and it will pass. You're allowed to take every day as it comes. You're allowed to not know where to begin. It's ok to see how you feel tomorrow

  • Identify everything that's causing you overwhelm; write them down, brainstorm, journal - sometimes just seeing everything written down can help you see how much you're dealing with and that anyone would feel overwhelmed in the same situation

  • From this list, identify which things you can control, and which things are out of your control. Let go of the things you can't control and focus on the things you can control - keep reminding yourself of this if you need to

  • Reduce the amount of things you need to do - this might look like stopping doing some things altogether, cancelling plans, rescheduling, outsourcing to someone else, delegating and asking for help. Let people in! You don't have to do everything yourself. Let go of the need to be strong and independent.

  • For the things you still need to do, prioritise them on what absolutely matters the most, focus on one thing at a time and be realistic on what you can achieve whilst you’re feeling this way.

  • Prioritise sleep, this may seem counterintuitive if you feel a pressure to work longer, harder and keep pushing but it will really help

  • Establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries support and protect your emotional wellbeing, time and energy. It’s a way of showing love and respect to yourself, putting your needs first and making decisions that are best for you. They honour your needs, feelings and values

  • Lower your expectations of yourself and others, remember done is better than perfect

  • Talk it out and seek support from friends, loved ones or by seeking support from a trained professional, this could be a coach (like me!), or a counsellor or therapist

  • Become a detective - go back to the list above 'signs you're overwhelmed' and try to pick up on them sooner, before you get to the point of complete overwhelm

  • Book in regular periods where you can take a break and recharge. This could range from small, 5 minute breaks scattered throughout your day, to taking a day to yourself, or making sure you have holidays booked in to get away from it all

Need help with Overwhelm?

Talking things through, offloading and learning coping strategies with someone trained to ask the right questions, listen to you deeply and reflect things back to you can be hugely beneficial. Get in touch if you'd like a free, 30 minute no obligation phone call to find out more about coaching with me.

PS if you found this blog interesting, you'll LOVE my emails! Subscribe to receive my emails here. I'll send you one every few weeks and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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