It’s normal, in today’s world, to live a full life.
Increasingly, we have complicated and multi-faceted work lives which may take several forms, as well as commitments to children, parents, partners and friends who may need our time, presence and attention.
Further study, sporting and other interests, community involvement… downtime can seem fleeting and rare. And then there’s the housing market. And the climate crisis. That’s without even mentioning the curveball that is COVID-19.
It can seem that there is pressure in almost every area of life to do more, show up more, work harder, manage better – and no matter how much we do, we are left with the nagging feeling that it’s not enough, and that everyone else seems to be coping more easily than we are. Overwhelm can easily ensue.
Stress and overwhelm
This combination of external demands and internal pressure can lead quickly to stress and overwhelm, which can affect us on all levels. Chronic stress can cause many health problems, including muscle tension, fatigue, migraines, high blood pressure, ulcers and digestive problems, not to mention anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and depression.
What is so insidious about this kind of overwhelm is that while it may begin in one area of our lives, its effects can quickly spread. Sustained stress can make us angry and irritable, which can play havoc with relationships. Overwhelm can create cognitive fatigue, leading to confusion, inability to concentrate and poor memory, which makes it hard to work. If left unchecked, it can lead to burnout, which is a far more serious condition, requiring a far greater level of treatment and recovery.
Well, the one thing we can all agree on is that this is no way to live. So, if life is getting on top of you, what is to be done? Here are a few tips to help you begin to deal with overwhelm in your life.
The common factor
As obvious as it may sound, the common factor in all the aspects of your life is – you. Take a moment to imagine yourself as a tree, being blown by gusts of wind from all sides (these being the pressures and demands of your life). It is quickly apparent that the only thing preventing such a tree from being blown over entirely is its roots.
Where are your roots? What are the things in your life that give you strength and help you stand strong? You need to find, either alone or with the help of a therapist, a way to come back to a strong and centred place every day.
Some of the things that will help you to stand strong might include spiritual practice, intentionally connecting with the people close to you, spending time in nature, running or taking part in a sport that you enjoy, playing a musical instrument, doing something fun or creative.
Note that escape behaviours like drinking, drugs, overeating or passive consumption of tv or social media won’t provide more than momentary relief and can ultimately contribute to the problem.
The important thing is that every single day you remember what it feels like to be having fun, to be relaxed, to be yourself. This keeps you from getting lost. If you feel like you’re already lost, you may need a little help, and this is where a therapist or an Anam Cara might be able to assist.
Who’s in your head?
Who is putting all the pressure on you? Is it other people, or is it yourself? There are situations where pressure is indeed externally generated – by a demanding boss, looming exams, or indeed by a new baby.
However, in almost every stressful situation, there is an inner gremlin adding to the fun by telling you how useless you are, how badly you’re doing and how your best efforts are never good enough.
Sometimes these voices come from far in the past – are you working yourself to the point of exhaustion in defiance of the long-ago teacher who said you were lazy and would never get anywhere? Or are you afraid to disappoint anyone, having internalised the parent who once called you selfish?
Take some time to notice, or even to write down some of these little internal monologues, and ask yourself where they might come from. You might be surprised at the answers.
If you can disidentify yourself from these inner voices, you can choose whether you wish to remain compelled by them. Perhaps you can consciously replace them with a more positive form of self-talk.
Know your priorities and your limits
What are the most important things in your life. Can you list them – 1,2,3?
Now, where do you spend the greatest part of your time and energy. Make another list – 1,2,3.
How do your two lists correspond? Ideally, they would be similar, if not identical. However, for many of us, the two lists bear little resemblance to each other.
We are each limited to 24 hours in a day, and a certain amount of energy to spend in that time. If we constantly overspend ourselves, our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing begins to suffer. Recognising our limits allows us to be more intentional about where we spend our energy. If you are spending large portions of your time and energy on things that are not that important to you, can you make changes? Practice saying no to requests and invitations. If this feels impossible, buy yourself some space by saying something like ‘I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you’.
As a friend said to me recently, it’s time to change FOMO for JOMO. Instead of doing too much from fear of missing out, we can start to take care of ourselves by discovering the joy of missing out – saying no to all but the truly appealing invitations.
Science has now proven something that many of us have always intuitively known to be true. Time spent outside helps to reduce stress and increase wellbeing. A study carried out at the University of East Anglia in 2018 found that exposure to green space (defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban green spaces, such as parks and street greenery) reduces the risk of several health conditions, including type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure. Researchers even noted that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress.
So, go for a walk (or try some walk and talk therapy). For bonus points, get out in the garden and get your hands dirty; another recent study from the University of Colorado at Boulder has shown that contact with soil can help your mental health, thanks to the presence of the bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, which can quell stress-related disorders. I’m sure any gardeners reading this will not be surprised in the slightest!
- Meditate – even ten minutes each day will help you to calm down, lower your cortisol levels and reduce your residual stress.
- Look for the quick wins – if your to do list is overwhelming, identify a few items you can get rid of quickly (pay that bill, make that phone call). It will give you a sense of achievement.
- Be realistic with your time – take one hour at a time, figure out what you can actually achieve in that time. Then practice saying no to demands that exceed those limits.
- Ask for help – you don’t have to do everything alone. It’s ok to admit that you can’t handle all the demands all the time. Family and friends may be available to step up, but don’t be afraid to seek professional help as well.
- Accept your emotions, even (or especially) when negative. Feel them, breathe through them and know they will pass.
- Try stay in the present and use your breath to bring yourself back when you feel yourself getting stressed or anxious.
- You may disappoint others, and that’s ok. Your mental, emotional and physical health is more important, to you and to those who love you. Prioritise it, and take the space you need in order to get well again.
A short piece like this can only scratch the surface of complex issues like chronic stress and overwhelm. If you’d like to talk about it, or if you’d like help in returning balance to your life, contact me. I’d love to hear from you.