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How to Overcome Overwhelm: A Practical Guide

a picture of a guy holding his head with the words stress all around him

Life can sometimes feel like a massive hailstorm, pelting us with tasks, responsibilities, to-do lists miles long, and all with a side-order of anxious, stressed-out feelings. We’ve all been there—but what if we could learn to create some calm during those times of overwhelm? How cool would that be?

In this blog post, we’ll explore strategies to overcome overwhelm and in way that helps us to remain cool, calm, and collected. No clichés or fluff—just real tools for those moments when overwhelm threatens to fill us with stress and anxiousness.

And our first strategy is...

1. Don’t Judge Yourself for Feeling the Overwhelm

It’s all too easy to cast a critical eye upon ourselves when we’re feeling overwhelmed. I’ll be the first to tell you, doing so only creates more crappy feelings alongside the overwhelm.

Actually, overwhelm serves a purpose - it serves as an indicator that your brain doesn't feel there are enough resources to deal. So, instead of judging yourself, try saying something like, “OK, the overwhelm is happening.” This will create space between you and the overwhelm so you can think a bit more clearly about your options and resources.

2. The Brain’s Survival Mode

Our brains are wired to conserve energy. When faced with a daunting task or a huge goal, the brain often defaults to survival mode. It whispers things like, “You can’t handle this. You’re not equipped.” and all with a view to keep you safe. But here’s the secret: overwhelm is not a sign of inadequacy; it’s a sign that what we’re trying to do is important. Your brain is doing its job; it’s protecting you by trying to conserve your energy. And in moments when your brain is trying to dissuade with "can't" messages, it helps to ask this question, "What do I know to be true?" Truth bombs are great elixirs to counteract the "can't" stories.

3. The Resource Inventory

I once heard Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hansen say, “We have a tendency to overestimate our challenges and underestimate our resources.” Cue stress and overwhelm. What if, instead of underestimating your resources in times of overwhelm, you imagined your brain as a well-stocked toolbox? When overwhelm strikes, imagine that toolbox spilling open, and tools scatter everywhere. Your job? Take inventory. What resources do you have that you can use? These resources can be tangible (time, skills, support, software, etc.) or intangible (determination, resilience, creativity, courage, past experiences...).  Knowing that you have resources calms down the brain and helps cool the emotions associated with overwhelm.

4. The Power of Past Experiences

Our brains love to review past experiences as a way to fill in the blanks of information and to serve as a guide. Unfortunately, they tend to focus on negative memories which is a survival mechanism. (Say hello to Negative Bias). Instead of allowing the brain to take over and search for all the reasons why overwhelm is going to consume you, try intentionally recalling times when you dealt with overwhelm. What did you do that worked? What resources did you use to successfully navigate your tasks, roles, and responsibilities?

5. The Overwhelm-Proof Plan

Now, armed with your resource list and past experiences that worked, craft a plan. Break down the tasks, to-dos, or goals into smaller, more manageable items. And as you complete them, be sure to celebrate your progress. Celebrating progress is a signal to the brain to capture the steps you took for future use. Not to mention, completion to the brain helps to activate the reward center, releasing some cool feel-good chemicals.

So, the next time overwhelm happens, it’s just a signal letting you know it’s time to engage your resources. Because it’s not the overwhelm that is ever really the issue. It’s the negative stories we believe and how those stories impact what we feel and how we react or respond.

Just remember, overwhelm has nothing on you and you’ve got the resources to prove it!


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