Overwhelm is a word I hear a lot. In fact, I hear it often enough that I decided to explore it more in depth. If you look up overwhelm in the dictionary you will find 1) to affect (someone) very strongly, 2) to cause (someone) to have too many things to deal with, and 3) to defeat (someone or something) completely. Usually it involves all three of these meanings for most people I talk to.

When I ask what symptoms people associate with overwhelm, I hear decreased sleep, increased worry, fatigue, tearfulness, irritability, and intrusive thoughts. Those symptoms can be associated with many different feelings so they don’t set overwhelm apart from other emotions very well.

Factors that often contribute to this feeling can include having too many tasks. Excessively high standards, poor time mangement, inadequate mindfulness skills, or focus on another person’s evaluation of you can also contribute. This certainly suggests definitions 1 and 2.

Expectations of one’s self also may play into the feeling of overwhelm. The high standards or expectations mentioned above fit in this category too. I find that the words “should” and “shouldn’t” are the biggest contibutors. When these evaluations are present they really can drain a person’s resources and limit problem-solving skills. Many people have pretty rigid beliefs about how things should or shouldn’t be without being really clear about why. In fact, it is often just a preference.

Having weak boundaries can also contribute to feelings of overwhelm. People who self-identify as people-pleasers often have too many things to do and not enough time to do them because they haven’t learned to say no. They are also afraid to engage in the self-care that would increase their energy for tasks and overall resilience. Difficulty with prioritizing can also be a factor. If you look at your task list and see everything on it as the highest possible priority it would feel overwhelming.

Possibility List

When all of these things are considered it seems clear that the feeling comes from the inside but there may be outside factors. If the boss wants something NOW it likely impacts overwhelm. But if there is a confidence in one’s own ability to prioritize, set boundaries, and complete tasks it probably won’t be nearly as uncomfortable.

Other words people use to describe overwhelm include swamped, buried, flooded, saturated, overloaded, and engulfed. I was drawn to the words saturated and overloaded. Interestingly, saturated seemed to be from outside forces (although I acknowledge I have some control on what I let in). Overloaded seemed to be more internal for me. It is sometimes quite difficult for me to choose from the many things I like to do. I often take on more activities (because I really like them) than fit easily into my day.

When considering difficult to manage feelings it can be helpful to consider where you feel them in your body. This can be a great way to monitor how your coping skills are working since it makes the feeling more tangible. Does overwhelm feel like a knot in your shoulders? Maybe a pressure in your chest? Does it feel hot or cold? For those of you who know about tapping, it also is useful to use the bodily sensation as a focus for your tapping.

I Can and I Will affirmation

When you get down to it, the thoughts in your head that are associated with overwhelm generally are some variation of “I’m not enough” or that “I can’t handle it.” Those belief patterns come from so many different places. For me there is a childhood statement from a parent of “why can’t you be more like Lori.” Then there was a question about whether I deserved to be valedictorian since I was in chorus instead of advanced math. The media also perpetuates those feelings of not being enough for many people.

I would argue that for most of us the truth is really more like “I don’t want to handle this” or “I shouldn’t have to handle it.” This is an important thought pattern to explore and it can lead to solutions.

Speaking of solutions, here is a brief list of solutions you may want to try:

  1. Planning – Break tasks into the smallest possible pieces and assign a time to do them.
  2. Values clarification – Decide whether the competing tasks share a similar value for you. Do the things that are congruent with your highest values. (This isn’t always easy to figure out and it is ok to get professional help with any of these.)
  3. Mindfulness – Practice your mindfulness skills. Then you can stay in the here and now rather than ruminating on the past or catastrophizing about the future.
  4. Affirmations – Make statements of affirmation about your own ability to problem-solve, self worth, and intellect.
  5. Tapping – Tapping is a great way to manage the feeling of overwhelm.
  6. Self care – Set aside time (even a few minutes) to rest, relax, and renew. It will help you be more productive when there is an onslaught of activities.
  7. Language-monitoring – Watch your language for should, shouldn’t, ought to, have to, etc. These are energy drainers and not helpful.
  8. Choose your battles – There really will be times when it is not possible to do everything. You also might not be able to do everthing at your highest level.

Caution vs Fear

If you have been following the blog you already know that words matter. Whether we call something caution or fear is of great significance. Most people I talk to can’t readily verbalize the difference. Accurate description leads to better actions and responses.

caution sign

“You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself. People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves.” – Hermann Hesse

Fear can be defined as an unpleasant feeling triggered by the perception of danger, real or imagined. It causes physiological changes and behavior changes. It is unrealistic to think that we will never feel fear. Fear is a natural thing, even instinctual at times. In other instances it can be learned. It is not uncommon for a child to develop a fear of something that the parent is afraid of.

Caution can be defined as care taken to avoid danger or mistakes. Interestingly, it comes from the Latin cavere, meaning take heed. Synonyms include watchfulness, discretion, and circumspection. Caution acknowledges the fact there there is risk. It is based on our knowledge of the world. But caution does not imply the need for continual vigilance. It is more contextual. We recognize that there is uncertainty or risk in a certain time or situation, but the recognition doesn’t cause the physiological change.

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks

What I have observed is that caution is generally the appraisal of a situation whereas fear is the appraisal of one’s ability to handle the situation. Fear implies that you have convinced yourself that you are not capable of handling a negative outcome or emotion.

Although I’m sure not everyone would agree with me, I think caution and fear are appropriate emotional reactions, but only when contextually warranted and time-limited. They are both important sources of information as we try to navigate this complex world.

“Prudence is not the same thing as caution. Caution is a helpful strategy when you’re crossing a minefield; its a disaster when you’re in a goldrush.” – John Ortberg

So what’s the purpose of all of this? The purpose is to make sure that we are making correct interpretations and responding with effective actions. It is also to encourage seeing the contextual/environmental nature of caution and fear rather than defining them as permanent personality characteristics.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The more you tell yourself that you are afraid, the more you will believe it. Eventually you will begin to act out being afraid and limiting your life and the pursuit of your values. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Fear can be present in some situations, but only for the necessity of survival. Remember, the real difference is in the attitude toward ourselves. Do we believe we can handle it or not?

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” – W. Clement Stone

“If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu