Are You Stuck in Overwhelm? This More and Less Strategy Can Help


Overwhelm. Sometimes we feel it occasionally around the holidays, near work deadlines, etc. Other times it seems to be as omnipresent as summer humidity in the south (I've spent some time in the south this summer and....wowza).  

Why do we feel overwhelmed? 

The key to answering that question is in the question itself. Go back and take a look? Do you have any guesses? All right...I'll give you a clue...heck, I'll give you the answer. FEEL. Overwhelm is a feeling. Feelings are, by definition, a temporary state. And feelings are created by our thoughts. So when you have a feeling (one that you deem positive or negative) that you want to better understand, back it up and ask yourself about the thought that you were having just before this feeling of overwhelm dropped itself on you like a ton o' bricks. You might not be able to identify it immediately, but trust me, there's a thought in there, and in general, with practice (can this sentence have any more clauses??), you will become more aware of your thoughts and thus better able to identify them even before or on the cusp of major feelings and emotions. So, back to the nuts and bolts...what was that thought. Maybe one of the following sounds familiar to you

  • I have so much to do. I'll never get it all finished.

  • There is no way I can cook dinner and clean up the mess from the kids/dog/spouse/myself.

  • Why did I say yes to attending/hosting this event?

  • Work is out of control right now!

Just reading those thoughts makes the feeling of overwhelm creep into my awareness.

Automatic Thoughts

So many of our thoughts are automatic and unconscious. And thank goodness...who wants to have to think about breathing and blinking all day thanks! But these automatic thoughts run the show most of the time. Increasing your awareness of the automatic thoughts and then changing those thoughts with some basic cognitive-behavioral-therapy techniques can get to the root of the issue of overwhelm. Those patterns take time and repetition to change. While you are working on that, the MORE and LESS tool can help.

What do I want more of in my life? What do I want less of in my life?

I adore making lists...lists on pretty paper, lists on post-it notes, lists on the back of receipts, etc. Making lists is a useful strategy for getting what is floating around in your mind to settle onto the paper where you can actually DO something with it. So, grab a piece of paper or a post-it or whatever floats your boat, and let's get started. Set up your paper like this:


Follow these steps before you begin the exercise:
1. Take a deep breath. And another. And another. Breathing is good for you, helps to switch you into the parasympathetic mode, which in and of itself will shift the thoughts leading to overwhelm.
2. Enter the judgment-free zone. When you begin to fill in your lists (and put your pencils down because we are not ready yet...I know you are excited!), do it without a filter. Don't think about whether or not the item you are adding is realistic (e.g., I want my dog not to shed any hair on my freshly washed bed;  I want dinner delivered to me every evening; I want my kids to dress themselves, etc.).
3. No outer critic allowed. Tune out any voices from others that creep in and say, "Oh no, who do you think you are to want that?" "You signed up for this when you got married/had a kid/got a cat." That voice does not have a ticket to enter.

One more might be asking yourself, how can I add MORE to my life if I'm already overwhelmed. The answer is that adding quality people and activities to your life actually reduces stress which reduces the "should-ing" thoughts that often lead to overwhelm. Give it a try.

Now that those ground rules have been established, go forth and create your list without censoring yourself or being concerned what you or others thing you should do. 

After you've finished that, take another deep breath because you did it! Woohoo! Bringing that to awareness is the first step to change. Now as you peruse your lists, what themes do you notice, if any? Are you wanting more time with friends and less work commitments? Are you wanting more time to just BE and not DO and less time spent doing errands. Take a good look at the list and circle two in each column that resonate the most with you. Put your creative thinking hat, or fedora, or ball cap...whatever works for you, and allow yourself to think outside the box about creative ways that you could make those ideas become a reality. It might involve saying NO more. It might involve asking others for help. Those things can be scary, but it you tie them to your feel less overwhelmed and more peaceful...saying no and asking for a hand suddenly don't seem so scary. If you don't come up with anything right off the bat, that's okay too. Your creative thinking and take-care-of-myself muscle might need a bit of exercise. If you are 1) aware and 2) open to the idea of making changes, you might be surprised when new ideas pop into your the shower, driving to work, washing the dishes, etc. 

Have you tried this exercise? Did it work for you? What makes you feel most overwhelmed? Leave me a comment and let me know!