A live experiment: what to do when you’re overwhelmed.

This article is close to my heart because the tools and techniques I’m going to share with you are exactly what I had to put into action just a few nights ago. Life and business have the potential to be overwhelming, particularly if you, like I, are susceptible to stress, anxiety, or depression. I’m great at keeping multiple plates spinning at any one time and rarely know how many I have on the go, this can mean one extra plate to spin, or one particularly unruly one can leave me feeling like everything else is in jeopardy.

I’d arrived home for a long weekend, and just before getting into bed I opened the mail (I will not do this again, see I’m already learning!). Having opened one particular letter, it was alarming and I immediately began to catastrophise what this would mean in the short term and what the potential impact might be over the long run. To put you in the picture, it’s business related and would impact my finances, it needs to be disputed, and this too will take time and money. I went to bed intending to try to sleep and sort it all in the morning, or at least beginning to do so.

I imagine you’ve guessed the next part, I couldn’t sleep. As I lay there one plate after another started spinning out of control and I felt completely overwhelmed, I began to panic and had to get up and out of bed. My partner showed concern, and we could’ve spoken had I wanted to, but at the moment we can often feel alone and at the same time feel that’s how we need to be to tackle this, on our own. I arrived in the living room and asked myself,

What do I need to do now that will allow me to feel like I have taken some affirmative action, without the need to lose a night’s sleep?

The process I went through I would recommend to anyone who experiences any form of overwhelm and needs to take immediate action, albeit you resolve to not being able to overcome any problems there and then. If you do, that’s a bonus.

Write everything down.

Start by writing everything down. There is no need for any form of technology here, no app has yet been invented which works as well for this as good old pen and paper. At this stage, there is no specific format to follow. Write everything down as and when it comes to you, in no particular order. What’s everything you’re finding overwhelming? What are all the things you think you need to deal with? If you think of solutions as you’re writing, by all means, get these noted down too. You’ll make sense of your ramblings once you’ve completed them. For now, go with the flow and do what I call a ‘brain fart’.

Define what is important.

The next step is the review your writing and find what is immediately important, what requires action as soon as possible? Where everything seems important, focus on low hanging fruit, what are these things you could take some immediate action on which would create an immediate improvement. Of what remains, first define the immediate goal for each and look for initial actions you can take to move it a step forward towards this. The key here is to keep it simple, this is not about overwhelming yourself, it’s about short and immediate actions that move you out of overwhelm and into control. Here are some examples of some of the openings of the quick actions I identified:

  • Consolidate…
  • Cancel…
  • Send…
  • Find…
  • Speak…

As I wrote the list, I was considering what all the things I can literally do tomorrow which won’t take me much time. I also thought of one or two overriding important big goals and which of the problems I had listed needed overcoming in order to increase my chances of achieving these goals. Equally, which problems, are not problems if they’re not impacting my long term plan.

Put yourself first.

As you work through this, you need to put yourself first. Creating this list of actions might mean having to send difficult emails, have challenging conversations, or unintendedly upsetting people and right now if that means you survive, it’s necessary. Equally, don’t look too far beyond the present moment, work with all the information you currently have available, and if further down the line you look back and think you could’ve done it differently, learn and move on.

Know you are doing the right thing, right now. The important thing is to take action and not allow yourself to remain overwhelmed.

In addition to this, and I find this tough, but I do it, it is useful to identify a support network. Jot down who could help you with what, this isn’t a commitment to going to them, but it is helpful to know they are there and you could ask for help.

Gain perspective.

You’ve got everything noted down, you’ve worked out what is important, you’ve identified some actions you can take immediately, and you’ve prioritised your self-care. Now, review the list and allow yourself time and space to gain perspective. At that moment it can feel like there is no way out and you are drowning. This short and straightforward activity has thrown you a lifeline and the direction to which you can swim a little further from these turbulent waters. Often, upon review, we can see the temporary nature of what we’re up against. I recall how in the past, when overwhelmed, I would play the most awful thought pattern in my head of ‘I’ll just kill myself,’ I understand this was part of my illness, so I hold no shame for this, but it still alarms me that my brain, at times, would present this as a solution. An incredibly permanent solution to temporary problems.

We’re not looking for permanent solutions right now, just little actions to get the plate spinning.

Tomorrow is the day I have assigned myself to take action, and I am pleased to say the few days since I opened the mail and put pen to paper, I have had a few days respite. My mind is confident I have everything in control, now working not against me, but with me. It’ll be a tough few days, but there is a clear way out, and upon reflection, there’s nothing ahead I can’t handle. I’m willing to be uncomfortable because I know the temporary nature of this and permanence of the solutions I am putting in place, piece by piece. My openness and honesty with others will allow me to be guilt free as I also recognise the most important thing to focus on right now is me.

I hope this short and straightforward approach can help you navigate your own spinning plates, understanding as I do now, a few plates falling to the ground are not always a bad thing, as long as you keep what’s important going, or get someone else to look after them for you, until you’re well.

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