From Overwhelm to Smart Thinking

Dec 14, 2016 | Stress

Calming the chaos to get it done – or not

When the busy-ness begins to overwhelm, don’t wait to get your brain back on track

So much to do, so little time

To overwhelm is “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass.”  It sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

We’ve all been there, drowning underneath a mounting list of things to do, remember or resolve.

When we’ve got a lot to do, it can be hard to focus. Our minds move from one issue to the next, trying to keep track of it all, but not necessarily tackling it all.

And with the holiday season upon us, the situation gets more challenging. Now, in addition to our usual juggling act, we add the planning and doing of cards, holiday parties, gift-giving, travel, etc. – there are only so many hours in the day, how can we do it all?

Overwhelm and chaos

When we’ve got so much on our plates, our lives start to feel chaotic, and we become stressed and anxious.

We begin to worry that we can’t get it all done, that we’ll screw something up, disappoint someone who’s relying on us, or forget something entirely. Fear and panic set in.

Last week I coached at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, and with over 10,000 professional women attending, you can imagine that many were looking for ways to feel less overwhelmed and to better handle their time and energy.

So if you’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed, you’re not alone.

The brain and overwhelm

When this overwhelm mounts, our brains can go a little haywire, causing us to be less efficient, effective and productive.

Neurologically speaking, our pre-frontal cortex, in charge of our executive functions such as high-level thinking, planning and decision-making, becomes overloaded with all the tasks and issues to solve. This sets off a sort of panic button in our brains.

When the brain senses that there’s too much going on, that chaos is afoot, it shuts off the cortex functioning and reverts to the more primitive, limbic functioning that’s in charge of our basic survival.

In a state of overload, the prefrontal cortex gets caught in a loop of sending signals to the limbic system that it can’t successfully resolve all that’s being asked to resolve, which then sends more SOS signals back to the limbic system.

So when you’re at work, responding to another request for information, trying to meet a deadline on a client memo, completing some research, and sending a quick email to set up a lunch meeting, if your partner suddenly calls with questions about a holiday shopping list, you’re not likely to respond well.

In fact, you might feel like that phone call from your partner is an attack on you – now that you’re brain has shifted to its survival system – and you might lose your temper or freeze.

Unfortunately, today our brains are often overwhelmed as we are bombarded with information and requests from many sources, and a high value is placed on speed and multi-tasking. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls this common neurological problem “attention deficit trait,” or ADT.

Beyond the physical affects of stress on our bodies, when the brain shifts to survival mode, we’re not capable of very smart thinking. There’s no room for nuance; matters become black or white. Sophisticated analysis, well-reasoned decisions and creative problem-solving are out the window.

Instead, we might act impulsively. We might ignore or deny problems. We might lash out. And we might harm professional or personal relationships.

So it’s important to recognize when we’re overwhelmed to prevent potential damage and get back to our higher-level functioning.

How to get back to smart thinking

When the brain goes a bit haywire trying to manage all that’s being thrown its way, it’s time to slow down, break it down, and accept that you’re not Wonder Woman. (Really, you’re not.)

Here are some tips to get past the overwhelm and back to smart thinking:

  1. Structure and lists. When the brain is in overwhelm, it needs structure to calm it down. It needs to break down the larger picture which is out of focus, into bite-sized, focused parts. Lists are a great way to create structure. Lists also let your brain relax because once your action items are on paper, they don’t have to be swirling around in your head for later recall. So make lists of all that you need to do and resolve, and give the lists some structure. For instance, keep one list for work and another for personal items.
  2. Prioritize. You can’t possibly do all that needs to be done in a single day. Some items will have to wait until the next day or the next week. Once you’ve made your lists, prioritize them in terms of immediate need and importance. Does it really matter to you that it get done? And if so, how long can it wait?
  3. Take short breaks each day, and throughout the day, to clear your mind. This could be walking outside, getting up from your seat to look out the window, taking several deep breaths, or meditating. Let your mind stop and relax. Even a brief reset will let you formulate a clearer picture of how to move forward and will signal to brain that there’s no need to panic.
  4. Stay positive. It’s very easy to stress about our stress. But that only compounds the problem. Instead, being OK with a little added stress and viewing it as a motivator to productivity will help you keep perspective and stop you from going down the rabbit hole of stress.
  5. Accept your limitations. You’re only human, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you can be OK with not getting everything done, or done perfectly, you’ll help keep your mind from the limbic-system panic loop. So rather than getting stressed over not getting something done, you’ll actually be more efficient and productive if you calmly accept that all you can do is your best. And if it doesn’t get done, the world won’t fall apart.

Checking in

So don’t ignore when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Pay attention so you can avoid making some bad decisions or saying something you’ll regret. Check in with yourself. Take a few moments.

What will you do to get back on track? I’d love to hear some of you handle overwhelm, especially this time of year. And if you’ve got a friend who’s up to her eyeballs these days, share this post!


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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