Your mind is an untamed ocean of thoughts and feelings, pulsating as if waves are crashing against the inside of your skull. You try to stay afloat, but you can’t help feeling as though it’s only a matter of time before your head disappears below the surface of the water.
This is you when you are feeling overwhelmed by life. This is how your mind reacts when everything gets on top of you; when you feel unable to cope with it all.
The cause of this may sound very obvious: it is a response to stress. And, yes, you would be right in thinking that this is a very superficial understanding of the situation. But, at its most basic, the sense of overwhelm you get is the reaction of your body and mind to stress.
More specifically, it is the response to stress caused by a build up of many responsibilities – both big and small – and the belief that you aren’t able to keep all the plates spinning much longer. The unconscious fear of letting a plate fall and smash causes a stress response that results in the very conscious feeling of overwhelm.
This type of response is quite specific in that it relates to the compounding of multiple concerns – it is not the type of response you’d generally experience when the stressor is a single thing such as being unfulfilled in your job or a recent bereavement.
When overwhelm occurs, your brain struggles to process all of the different issues because you can only give over conscious thought to one at a time. But when you try to do so, the anxiety caused by all of your other problems prevents you from thinking clearly on the one you’ve singled out.
Think of your mind as being a door where problems are matched with solutions when they pass through. When you feel overwhelmed, there are so many problems trying to push their way through the door that, in the end, none of them can squeeze past the others.
The solution is quite straightforward: you have to clear the roadblock so that the issues you face can once again pass through the door where solutions are found.
There are two ways you can do this:
Drop some of the issues altogether so that the road is clear for others.
Create a traffic management system so that each problem can be tackled one at a time with clear and concise thinking.
In practice, you will probably end up combining both approaches to form one coherent strategy.
Sounds simple, but how do you actually take this and implement it in the real world?
Well, first you need to identify all of the things that have contributed to you feeling overwhelmed. Without a clear idea of the many issues that need to be addressed, you will not be able to consciously tackle the whole problem.
Take a pen and paper and write down every single concern that is playing on your mind at this second. Don’t worry about how insignificant some may see; it’s best to get them all in the open.
Next, decide which, if any, are worries that you can bin completely. Look at your list and really ask yourself whether each item is something that deserves your attention, or if you are fretting about something that has no concrete foundation in reality.
Maybe you have got it in your head that you are at risk of being fired by your employer. Delve a little deeper and ask whether this risk is real and serious, or whether you are just worrying about nothing. Be honest with yourself and you’ll find the right answers to these questions.
Hopefully you will now have a smaller list of concerns to work with after identifying those that you can blissfully ignore without any repercussions. Your next job is to find a way to put those issues that remain in some sort of order.
Only when you have prioritized will you be able to tackle each issue efficiently; when your door is open and the road through has a single lane of traffic.
Prioritization comes down to two major things: how major is the issue at hand and how soon does it need to be addressed?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Example 1: your landlord has given you two month’s notice to vacate your current home. The question of time might seem straightforward – you’ve got two months to find somewhere else to live – but you have to work back from that cut off date and think about the steps between then and now. How long does it take to arrange viewings for alternate accommodation, how long does it take to sign the agreements, how long does it take to get organize a removals company, and how long does it take to pack?
If you can break each problem down like this, then you can address each step at the most appropriate time.
As to how important the issue is, being homeless is certainly not something you’d want to consider, so you would be right to mark this as a major concern that warrants your attention.
Example 2: your birthday is coming up in a week’s time and you’d like to arrange a celebration with your friends.
The timeframe is once again fixed, but this time you might not be so worried if nothing gets properly organized because you can always just go on impulse and find a restaurant, bar, or activity on the day. Right now, perhaps the only thing that is really pressing is to let people know that they should keep the date free.
Example 3: you are unhappy in your current job and would like to follow a different career path by taking a new qualification.
Here the time aspect of your concern is less stringent. You have a job and subsequent income and, if required, you could continue in the same vein for a while.
On the other hand, you may be so despondent with your situation that you assign a fairly high score to it in terms of its importance.
So, with each item on your list, you have to weigh up the severity of the situation and any time constraints that might be placed on finding a solution. It won’t always be black or white, but somehow you have to order the list from most pressing to least.
Then, with a clear vision of what should be done first, you can begin to tackle your issues without the sense of impending doom that you had before going through this exercise.
Your mind might not be entirely quiet, but you will be able to dedicate enough of your mental capacity towards resolving each concern one at a time.
Try this approach next time you are feeling overwhelmed by life’s problems. Let us know if it works by leaving a comment below.