Overwhelmed – a Personal Case Study

I was overwhelmed. After a string of huge life events the previous few years, then adding a new child, new home and new job into the mix, I wasn’t in a good place by any stretch. I was tired, strung-out, anxious, distant, unmotivated and depressed. I couldn’t shake the funk. It went on long enough that I could not pinpoint the cause or the solution. I was stuck and frustrated.

In addition to the strain it put on my relationships, it also strained my work. I was forgetful, unmotivated, I made sloppy mistakes, I lost my job. I should have seen it coming, but I was always stressed, worried and felt guilty I couldn’t perform better. I didn’t see the signs.

This is a post on the potential consequences of, and how to deal with being overwhelmed. If you are already stressed, why not take the opportunity to see it as a sign that something is seriously out-of-whack, and make tough decisions to get your life back on track?

In other words, don’t be me.

It isn’t uncommon to feel overwhelmed in today’s society. That sense of high stress, feeling like there is too much to do, feeling a bit frantic that we can’t balance it all, trying to multi-task, feeling bad we can’t give more; we have all felt it. With work, kids and even running a business on the side can have huge consequences, but that feeling can also be a reminder that something is wrong.

The key is acknowledging it.

In my case, I was so low already that I was numb packing up my office. I was walking out of a six-figure job, with a lifestyle to match, and I didn’t care. I was already too demoralized to care.

When any system is strained beyond its tolerances, failure is inevitable.

The sources of overwhelm are different for each of us, as well as our ability to cope. What I learned about myself is that by not living in balance and being sure that I am acting from a place of Purpose, I will fail. The consequences can be major and not just to myself, but to those around me. I can’t give to others if I don’t take care of myself.

Being unemployed gave me the opportunity to reflect and remind myself what was truly important. When I was in the midst of the crisis, I couldn’t ‘see the forest for the trees’ so to speak. Hitting rock bottom gave me clarity.

The Road Back

One thing I did was commit to never letting myself get in that situation again. If I find myself uncharacteristically stressed for any length of time, it is a notification to stop and make an assessment. I tend to internalize my feelings, so expressing them is important for me.

I also committed to defining Purpose based on my core values and aligning my actions with them.

What really helped me most, however, was writing. I know it isn’t for everyone, but there is a good reason to journal and to acknowledge what you are going through. Fortunately I used to write regularly, so it was easy to fall back into it.

Writing helps because getting ideas out on the page is a good way to learn about yourself. At first it is easy because you get all the easy ideas out first, and the more ideas you express, the more you have to dig deep to find more. This was a process of self-realization and awareness.

It doesn’t matter what the ‘stuff’ is you write about, only the process. When I first started writing again, I didn’t know what to write, so I wrote about why I was writing. If you do this, eventually a thread of ideas will emerge and you can follow that idea path. It gets easier once you get into the habit.

By reflecting on my values through this process, I re-engaged with my purpose. I also had the time to take action toward following my dreams and passions. Re-focusing on the things in life that are important to me brought me to a place of calm that I hadn’t had in years.

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed

Self-Care.  Stress, anxiety and depression are not fun feelings to have. They ruin any sense of peace or reward from life and lower your mood. Consistent stress will produce Cortisol in the brain, impact sleep and productivity and ultimately reduce overall performance and productivity. It will also strain the heart. Plainly stated, people that are stressed don’t live as long.

Take time out for yourself instead of constantly giving to others. By practicing mindfulness and re-engaging with real meaning in your life, you maintain, or regain perspective of what is truly important.

Eating a healthy diet will provide proper nutrition and promote consistent energy levels and increase health.

Exercise is almost magical in that it will boost energy and mood, reduce stress, boost self-esteem, ward off depression and strengthen your heart.

Define the things that are causing your overwhelm. Understanding that there was a lot on my plate, even good things, caused stress. Trying to manage a hectic schedule and not coping well with the stress was a poor approach to life.

We tend to fill our schedules with activities to make sure we get the most out of our time. We all have limited reserves of mental energy, and constantly drawing from it depletes them. Decision fatigue is a real thing and wears us out mentally, leaving less to be able to give to ourselves or others.

Prioritize. Once I knew the sources of my stress, I could re-prioritize to make tough decisions about what I could take on, as well as do things that would benefit me. Sometimes saying ‘no’ is necessary, even if it is something you want to do. By building in some down time, it will stretch coping skills farther. Focus on the tasks that bring the most personal benefit first.

Warren Buffet has a strategy for this. His concept is to list the top 25 things you want to do or accomplish in your lifetime. Then you determine what the top five most important are. You spend your time focusing only on those top five until you succeed at them.

What about the other 20? They are your ‘avoid-at-all-costs’ list. They may be massively important to you, but you will become overwhelmed and never accomplish anything if they are a distraction.

Your priority list just got a whole lot shorter!

Talk it Out. I had to force myself to open up and discuss what I was going through. This isn’t natural for me, and the people closest to me started to feel like I was being distant or aloof. Talking gets the issues out in the open so they can be dealt with. Counseling is a good place for this, because the therapist will drag it out of you!

Being an introvert and always ‘in my head’, I often don’t realize how distant, short or aloof I can be. It takes a whole lot of self-awareness to be sure I am communicating effectively, especially to those closest to me.

This awareness of the need to communicate also extends to the workplace as well, by engaging with other co-workers and management to keep them informed as well as working with them to mutual ends.

Wrapping it Up

We all get overwhelmed from time to time, as sometimes that is just part of life. We can’t always control our environment.

Intentionality about our activities can give us control over our lives as well as give us the best chance of avoiding overwhelm.

Being consistently aware of our personal needs and balance, we can ensure we are meeting our physical, emotional and mental needs. These will be different for everyone, which makes it important that we are self-aware and take time to be mindful of our experience.

Take a few minutes to examine your own life and where you can adjust your priorities to reduce your stress and improve your state of mind.

Leave a comment on how overwhelm affects you and how you deal with it.

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