27 February 2020
You can be zooming along thinking you are managing things when suddenly a sense of overwhelm overtakes you and becomes hard to shift. Feeling overwhelmed is easily identifiable when there is a sudden trauma such as a bereavement, but when you move from feeling competent to feeling you are not managing it is usually a sign that you have pushed too far. That old saying the “straw that broke the camel’s back” is very much true here. And even with a recognisable trauma, our ability to deal with it can be affected by the load we give ourselves.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a reaction to one day or a period of days and weeks, but usually signifies we are have taken on too much. Many people make the mistake of thinking that breaks lessen their work, yet research has shown people who take breaks are more productive. Pushing ourselves regularly to the point of overload not only does our health no good but it may not mean you achieve more. I am not talking about short bursts of driven energy but that relentless striving to get too much done and ignoring the signs. It is less about the number of tasks and more about ignoring how we are feeling. Some days I can achieve more and others I need to slow down and accept this.
As a social worker for 30 years I remember several times feeling that overwhelm. Early in my career I was helped by a manager who said “In your diary what cannot be cancelled over the next two weeks?” Straight away I recognised that there were many things that could be rescheduled and were not the priority I had given those tasks- this proved a useful strategy for the rest of my career. When we are facing 'too much' we need to prioritise what really is essential,and maybe even reprioritise again. We need to be flexible and adaptable to regain a sense of managing.
Being able to guage and monitor how what we are doing affects our stress levels is important to pace what we do. We need to pay attention to our bodies and mind regularly so that we are less likely to be overwhelmed. Taking breaks to do something relaxing, social, self-supporting or enjoyable can help us manage stress by varying our pace and energy plus give us a different sense of achievement. Checking that we are not overloading ourselves and giving ourselves permission to re-prioritise enables us to be flexible. I often talk about a 'maintenance programme' (what we do to maintain our sense of wellbeing on a daily basis), versus a 'therapeutic programme' (what we do additionally for limited periods to support ourselves when we have extra stresses).
Paying attention to our wellbeing needs supports us by bringing us back to the present rather than living in the future which is more likely to lead to lack of self-care. Being busy and getting things done is important, but it needs to be balanced with self-care and self-maintenance as an equal priority.
You may find the following useful: