In a meeting with some colleagues, the discussion shifted to the topic of feeling overwhelmed. A feeling of, “wait just a minute – when did our calendars go from being empty or scarce to being double and triple booked?” My clients often report the same sentiment. Studying, finals, and graduations easily transition into a slower summer. But this year my clients have not felt that ease into the season. Instead of a smooth cruise at an easy 55 miles per hour, it seems we have revved up to 90. This year feels different, and many people I talk to are describing this intense and sudden level of overwhelm.
Being overwhelmed, or “in over our heads,” creeps slowly into our lives. For instance, if our workload is growing, our typical response is to work longer and harder. We’re up early and working late, leaving us with cognitive fatigue. Our brains struggle to think logically, make decisions, or concentrate. The same goes for our personal lives. Those who are close to us and that rely on us for friendship or relational support may notice that we’re not able to be present or available in the ways that we typically have. Additionally, the chaos and devastation that has become more pervasive in our world can leave our brains over-thinking for an extended period of time causing mental overload. This fatigue impairs our ability to handle the level of complexity that the overwhelm has created. The consequences can be problematic in terms of how we make sense of our world and how we function in it.
Controlling the Controllables
I work with many clients to help them manage their anxious or overwhelming feelings. They often share that they feel overwhelmed, and that they cannot and do not know where to begin to tackle their issues. They’re already mentally fatigued. Any of the many effects of this fatigue makes them less effective at problem solving and can even make them feel more overwhelmed. They’re speeding 90 miles per hour and making decisions that don’t necessarily align with their values, leading to a sense of loss of control. Alternatively, they may share that they feel parlayzed or constantly avoid the things that overwhelm them. To begin reducing their overwhelm, we start by slowing everything down and discussing how to control the controllables, or things that we actually have control over. If you are feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, or speeding a bit too fast for your comfort level, here are some strategies that will enable you to navigate each moment with more ease.
1. Check in with yourself. On the surface we’re “back in action” – gatherings and vacations and fitting in all the things we feel we missed out on the past few summers. But how are you actually feeling about that? How overwhelmed or out of control do you feel on a scale of 1-10? Can you envision the summer you’d like to have? Creating an intentional summer plan based on your values and who you choose to spend your time with is essential for your overall sense of well being.
2. Controllables. Figuring out what you actually have control over and then acting on those things, will help you feel more in control of your situation. Ask yourself: “Who do I want to be and what is mine to do in this moment?” Worrying and obsessing over things you cannot have an impact on or that are greater than your reach will only heighten your sense of overwhelm. Decide what you can do and choose your next right action.
3. Summer clean-up. You have envisioned the summer you want to have, and you’ve assessed what you can control to achieve that reality. Now it’s time to do a little house cleaning. What feels most meaningful to you that you want to create more of in your life this summer? What no longer serves you that you can leave behind?
4. Set boundaries. Once you know who you want to be and what is yours to do, set appropriate boundaries so that you can take back some control. Boundaries can feel difficult to set and enforce initially, but are necessary if you want to feel less overwhelmed. Your time is precious, so make sure you’re spending it in the ways that are most meaningful to you. Aligning your actions with your values will reduce your overwhelming feelings because everything you’re doing then will have purpose and meaning in your life. Boundaries allow your internal vision to become your reality in the form of the summer you want for yourself.
Despite the direction you’re currently going, you can change your course with a few adjustments. Going 90 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone is dangerous, both in a car and metaphorically. Maintaining a constant speed keeps your brain from panic and fatigue. This allows you to not just survive, but to experience the life you have imagined. Try these strategies in order to bring yourself back to a comfortable cruising speed. Remember, the speed limit is there for a reason.