It all got a bit much this week. Balls were dropping, plates were smashing. My head has felt fuggy, swimming with things I need to do, people I’m supposed to respond to, things I mustn’t forget, but feeling like there’s not enough time for any of it.
At a school pick up this week, Mabel came out and said ‘Mum, you didn’t give me a packed lunch for the trip today’. It’s ok because some of the children of the twenty nine parents that did remember to feed their kids gave her bits of their lunch and the teacher shared her sandwich. She wasn’t even cross or upset, just matter of fact. Which obviously made me feel worse.
As cases of child neglect go, it’s not up there. But I knew it was coming. It seems to be an ongoing cycle, I can juggle and manage and get things done in the nick of time, and then there’s a tipping point where the minor tasks become mammoth and nothing is being done properly and I feel utterly useless. And that’s when things start to drop. I feel trapped in overwhelm and will lie awake at 4am, the to do list whizzing through my mind like the ticker tape across the bottom of a busy news screen.* And then getting in a tizz because the thing I really need is sleep, but my mind is too busy to allow it.
The forgotten packed lunch along with all the other plate smashing this week is symptomatic of the need to stop.
Emma Svanberg, Clinical Psychologist, told me that by the time we get to overwhelm, we’re often way passed the point of exhaustion. “Our expectations of ourselves are often far beyond what is realistic and achievable. We congratulate ourselves on meeting our high standards, and then berate ourselves when inevitably it all gets too much. It means we’re often out of balance and unkind to ourselves when doing too much has an impact”.
The only option here is to take some stuff out. The guilt and self flagellation is a terrible waste of energy when there isn’t really any to spare. In the moment, it doesn’t feel minor. There are mountains being made of molehills all over the place. But when I stop and there’s some space for perspective to come in, I know these pressures are mostly bought on by me. I have a choice. Breathe.
When it feels frantic, it feels like the last thing you can possibly do is stop. But as Matt Haig writes in Reasons to Stay Alive “Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to take time to relax”.
I’ve asked a few people to share their thoughts on The Overwhelm and how they handle it. What was really interesting is not one of them said ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘Oh I don’t really get overwhelmed’. It might be useful to hear how other people deal with feeling overwhelmed, but perhaps even more just to know other people feel that way.
Saima Thompson, founder of Multi award winning Pakistani restaurant Masala Wala Café in Brockley. After a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in 2018 at the age of 29 she is now a writer/blogger and public speaker.
When I feel overwhelmed I feel clouded like I can’t see straight, it manifests when I try to get too much done or am being too hard on myself when it comes to business decisions or our modern day nemesis, emails. What helps me bring calm is taking a step back and engaging in something relaxing, may it be a cup of herbal tea, reading or walking, self care is something I really look to prioritise these days. Something I have learnt post diagnosis is that a lot of our worries are… well basically OURS.
For me that overwhelming sensation creeps up slowly. I usually have a whole heap of plates flying up in the air, but if one has a wobble or (god forbid) crashes down it can feel like I’ve bodged the whole lot up. As a result I get tired, snappy and emotional – although I think that’s also part of being a parent! Time with my family and getting outdoors is a big remedy for me. I always find it funny that when I’m chaotic with work and feeling the strain, the thing that helps me is taking time away – but it’s true. It helps me remember what I’m doing it all for, and helps me step back and get some perspective.
Lucy Sheridan is the World’s first and only Comparison Coach. Signed to Gleam Titles and noted as one of the UK’s most successful coaches by The Times, she’s on a mission to cure comparison.
When I’m overwhelmed it feels like a baby elephant is sitting on my chest and that I could cry at any moment! When I’m in that state I take a moment to look at what are the essentials that must be completed and then I leave everything else and come back to it the next day. I’ll also back out of and excuse myself from things I may have over committed to so that I am communicating with those that might be affected by my overwhelm e.g. “I know we agreed I would have ‘XYZ’ to you tomorrow but I need until the end of the week please so I can give it my best” “…I’m afraid I’m no longer able to help out with that thing at the weekend – would you like me to help find someone else to fill my place?”. And so that my inner critic in my head doesn’t step in and make things worse I also speak to myself really kindly and gently like I would my best friend e.g. “you’re a good person and you’re doing your best!”.
Tamu Thomas is founder of Three Sixty; a holistic lifestyle brand including retreats and a podcast aimed at busy women in their late 30s and 40s that want to simplify life, and create space for everyday joy.
The best way to describe feeling overwhelmed is like I’m weighed down by sandbags hurtling down a never ending helter-skelter slide. My overwhelm manifests as avoidance, procrastination is my favourite manifestation of overwhelm because that gives my inner critic ample opportunity to tell me how unproductive I am repeatedly. This has at times led to “analysis paralysis” where I am literally trapped in my thoughts.
When I’m really deep my disruptor is to remind myself I haven’t harmed anyone or force myself to exercise. Generally lighting a particular candle and journaling about what is going on (or not) is a great reality checker usually revealing what’s going on underneath (perfection which is really fear of getting something wrong aka not being good enough). Getting those thoughts on to paper is cathartic. This process leads to action with a to do list of small actions to help me build momentum and confidence. I’m not an ‘eat the frog’ kind of woman, that leads right back to overwhelm but one steady foot in front of the other can lead to flight!
When I’m overwhelmed I can tend to overreact and it therefore panics me further. It’s usually things that I am not in control of – like an immediate deadline or not enough time to digest a task properly – therefore I like to use a proactive approach by grabbing a pen and paper and writing down all the things that are overwhelming me. That way I can tick off as I go and it brings me a sense of calm seeing myself complete the tasks.
Emma has a few ideas for beating overwhelm:
1. Explore what you are expecting of yourself. Often we have an impression that other people are able to achieve far more than us. They are overwhelmed too. You can make a choice – continue to feel overwhelmed, or look at how to go a little easier on yourself.
2. Often when we are already overwhelmed we add to our load because we’re in survival mode, and we lose our capacity to think things through. So we say ‘yes’ when we really need to say ‘no’, we drop things because we’re rushing, we don’t ask for help because we don’t have time to realise we need it. Take time to pause in between each task you are doing – when you are about to leave the house, when you’re about to pick up the kids, just before you open your laptop. Just take a moment to pause, take some deep breaths in and out (making your exhale longer than your inhale will let your body know it’s time to relax). Without changing much at all, this can help you create a little breathing space in your day.
3. Actively cross some things off your to do list. Many of them might have been on there for years. Just get rid of them. You’ll feel the weight off your shoulders and there’s one less thing to beat yourself up about not doing!
Hopefully these tips can help, but most of all know that if you’re feeling overwhelmed you’re definitely not on your own.
Plate spinning image by Hurrah for Gin.