You wake up tired. You feel burdened, heavy, tense. Your mind is whirring, racing from this to that. You feel mentally scattered, anxious at times, and irritable most of the time. There is little joy in your day. You forget what you were doing because you are pulled in so many directions. You are busy all the time, yet simultaneously never seem to get enough done. There is just not enough time!
Overwhelm has become a constant state for many of us. We rush around fulfilling multiple roles at once, never quite feeling like we are excelling in any of them. We talk about how overwhelmed we are: “How are you doing?” “I’m exhausted. A bit crazy really. I don’t know where this year has gone! You?” “Oh totally! Things are hectic!” Seriously, when is the last time someone replied “Oh, I’m great! Things are AWESOME!”?
Overwhelm has become an accepted state for many of us. With a vast array of information waiting readily at our fingertips we are expected to know more, to do more, and to arrive at any decision more informed. With instant communication we are expected to make decisions quickly, respond to challenges quickly, and provide support quickly. With so much information, communication, and resources available to us we are exposed to sensory overload. This increased demand on our attention puts our brains under a pressure that it was not designed to handle.
“For the vast majority of world history, human life—both culture and biology—was shaped by scarcity. Food, clothing, shelter, tools and pretty much everything else had to be farmed or fabricated, at a very high cost in time and energy. Knowledge was power, and it was hard to come by; for centuries, books had to be copied by hand and were rare and precious. Even people were scarce: Friends and relatives died young (as late as 1900, life expectancy in the United States was approximately 49 years).
This kind of scarcity still rules the world’s poorest regions. But in the developed world, hundreds of millions of us now face the bizarre problem of surfeit. Yet our brains, instincts and socialized behavior are still geared to an environment of lack. The result? Overwhelm—on an unprecedented scale.” – Martha Beck
Is it all bad? No, of course not. Having information at our fingertips means we have the capability to resource ourselves more strongly for a wider variety of situations. Taking on multiple roles allows many of us to simultaneously meet a wider range of priorities that are important to us – family, career, friends, community, supporting a cause. New levels of communication means that we can reach out to each other across greater distances – providing us with the opportunity to be more connected.
Even stress itself is not always bad. Short term stress can strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain, trigger the production of chemicals that regulate the immune system, and increase our motivation and focus. It is long term sustained stress that can result from a constant state of overwhelm that puts us at risk.
So what can we do to cut through the overwhelm? This is a complex and multi-faceted question. But we can start with
acknowledging our glorification of busy, and making a conscious choice to stop accepting overwhelm as part of life. This is not to say that making this choice will cause any overwhelm to melt away, but that when we make the choice we are more resourced to see where the overwhelm is coming from and start to make change. Understanding overwhelm paves the way for overcoming overwhelm.
For some of us, moving out of overwhelm will take time. It can require shifting perspective, changing ingrained habits, letting go of control, accepting support, and establishing some clear boundaries.
Start the process by asking yourself these questions any time you start to feel overwhelmed:
- What is contributing to my overwhelm?
- What is the priority here?
- What is one quick action that I could take now, that will have a large impact later?
- Who else could do this?
- What would happen if I said no to this?
Need some quick simple strategies to cut through the overwhelm and make some space in your life to make real change?
What is one key strategy that helps you when you are experiencing overwhelm? Share in the comments below.