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Overcoming Overwhelm

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Overwhelm is the silent killer you probably never heard of; it is responsible for a huge number of deaths, accidents, suicides, and health problems. Yet, there is very little research about it. What is overwhelm? What does overwhelm do to our well-being? What are its early warning signals? How can we recognise overwhelm in ourselves and others? What causes overwhelm? How can we best prevent overwhelm from escalating to catastrophic levels? An essential tool in your wellbeing and mental health armoury is “overwhelm awareness”. 

What is overwhelm?

It is a state where a person is unable to function properly or at all. Overwhelm seems to impair all our systems. Our emotions are extreme and beyond our control. Our ability to think clearly is impeded. Our perceptions are distorted. Our judgement is clouded, even chaotic. 

People who have recovered from overwhelm often describe it as a sense of drowning. 

Yet, bizarrely, overwhelm is not listed as a mental illness in the DSM-5. Why? Possibly because it is seen as a temporary state of ‘insanity.’ Being drunk or under the influence of narcotics can also induce a temporary state of insanity. 

To put this in perspective, being in a state of overwhelm is as dangerous to driving, as being drug or alcohol impaired. Vast numbers of fatal road accidents are caused by the driver being overwhelmed at the time of the accident. 

Most of the wisest people I know, will not drive a car or operate any other transport method if they feel stressed, emotionally upset, or even close to overwhelmed. They know the dangers.

Would you be the passenger in a car to a driver you knew was overwhelmed? I hope not. 

What does overwhelm do to our wellbeing?

Full overwhelm can be debilitating and often fatal. It puts us at risk of self-sabotaging decisions (or self-sabotaging absence of decisions), which can be life-harming, life-changing, or life-ending.

Overwhelm can be lethal in various forms. It increases the likelihood of serious accidents, leads to stress-induced heart failure or stroke, and can even result in suicide.

Overwhelm is a multi-dimensional state that can be described as occurring in a series of interrelated continua. For example, we may be emotionally stressed to the point that only some of our emotional functioning is beyond our control, while other emotions may still be within normal limits. 

We may be able to control our anger, to the point that we won’t physically attack someone, but the rage is so strong that we can’t focus our thoughts on not putting ourselves or others at risk from our decisions or behaviour.

Aspects of overwhelm

Partially or fully out of control, emotion is just one dimension of overwhelm. Let’s be a bit more specific about the components of overwhelm.

Cognitive overwhelm

In the early days of aviation safety, it was discovered that many fatal accidents took place when the pilots were faced with too many simultaneous problems; too much information to be humanly capable of processing what was going on. 

In the field of training and education, every skilled educator knows that if they give their students more information than the learner can process, the performance of the students reflects the fact that they can’t take in the knowledge.

Information overload is a feature of overwhelm. The person is trying to handle more than they have the capacity to process, and in many cases, more than any human being has the capacity to process.

To add to the complexity, much of the information a person is trying to process comes from internal sources—the person’s own emotional reactions and thoughts. 

Biochemical overwhelm

You have probably heard the phrase, ‘paralysed with fear.’ The phenomenon is very real. It describes an instant of overwhelm; the person’s own biochemistry, emotional reaction, and cognitive processing overwhelms them to the point of being unable to take any action.

In longer-lasting overwhelm, the same process applies; the person’s own biochemistry, their own internal processes, their fight or flight mechanism, is in such a heightened state that coherent thought is not possible. 

That too, worsens the overwhelm; the person is aware they cannot act, and that intensifies the sense of being out of control.

Physical overwhelm

Constant stress from being overwhelmed manifests in physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue. That adds to the emotional and cognitive load and worsens the overwhelm. The longer the overwhelm goes on, the more likely that being in a constant state of fight or flight drains the body, weakens the immune system and makes the person more susceptible to illness. That, in turn, adds to the overwhelm.

Behavioural overwhelm

When someone is under too much pressure and stress, their behaviour tends to change; they start engaging in behaviours that, unknowingly, worsen the situation. Those behavioural changes lead to even more concerns. The adverse reactions of others to the changes, add yet another layer of stress to deal with.

What are the early warning signals of overwhelm?

Feeling like you have a never-endingly increasing list of tasks with no clear end-point, or direction, or sense of accomplishment, is a situation likely to lead to overwhelm, or, is an indication that you are already there.

  • Inability to relax. Even during downtime, if your mind remains on overdrive, making it difficult to truly unwind, de-stress or relax, you may be heading for or are already in overwhelm.
  • Feeling irritable short tempered, becoming easily frustrated and snapping at loved ones, due to the underlying pressure and tension, is a strong sign of being in or approaching overwhelm.
  • Finding it hard to concentrate, or focus on any one task for a sustained period, and feeling a sense of inefficiency/ineffectiveness as a result, is another indicator of overwhelm.
  • Being unable to make even simple choices, feeling that you have too many factors to consider, being in analysis overload, or having an excessive fear of making the wrong decision, are also prime indicators of overwhelm.

All of the above can be indicators of other problems. The more of the above are in present, the more likely it is that you are in, or fast approaching overwhelm. 

Indicators of overwhelm that others may notice

While some of the indicators of overwhelm are hard to notice in ourselves, friends, relatives and colleagues may have no choice but to notice them. They include:

  • Behavioural changes. A usually reliable person starts missing deadlines, makes careless mistakes, dishonouring their commitments, or seems distant, indecisive or disengaged.
  • Social changes. Someone who is known to be highly social starts avoiding interactions, appearing withdrawn and disinterested in conversations they would normally welcome and enjoy, they could be overwhelmed.
  • Emotional changes. For example, if a person who is typically calm, balanced, reasonable and measured becomes easily triggered into verbal aggression, they may be in overwhelm. The opposite is also an indicator: passivity or silence in someone who would normally speak-up. If someone who was not previously, is now prone to outbursts, or displays sudden extremes of emotional behaviour, they may be in overwhelm.
  • Physical changes. Someone who usually looks healthy and vibrant starts to look very different physically. If they look tired, even first thing in the morning. If they develop dark semi circles under their eyes, or they suddenly fail to attend to personal grooming, they may be overwhelmed.
  • Hard to identify changes. When someone is highly skilled at concealing their inner state, it can be very difficult to spot that they are in overwhelm. In such cases the signals can be very subtle. All too often after a person who ended their own lives under the influence of overwhelm, those around them report that it was unexpected with no warning signals. The survivors then typically, look to themselves in an attempt to identify what they missed. Any retrospectively spotted signs can be so subtle that even experts would not have spotted them, in real time, unless actively looking.

What causes overwhelm?

Here are some of the common culprits.

  • Cognitive overload. When someone is subjected to more information than they can process, overwhelm is near inevitable.
  • Unrealistic expectations, perfectionism. impossible goals or standards can individually or collectively set us up for emotional and cognitive overload, and eventually, overwhelm.
  • Poor time management. Juggling too many commitments without effective planning or prioritisation, can lead to a feeling of being stretched too thin. That, in turn, leads to not having enough time to give proper consideration to decisions and tasks. Which in turn, leads to stress, poor decisions, and self-inflicted problems that progressively worsen the situation, until the person tips into the territory of overwhelm.
  • Chronic stress. Constant pressure at work, financial burdens, ongoing personal challenges can create a relentless stress cycle, leading to overwhelm. When someone is at the limit of their ability to cope and one more problem occurs, overwhelm is near certain.
  • Lack of control. It has long been known that, for most people, the less they feel in control of their situation the more stressed they are. Feeling out of control with our workload, schedule, life decisions, family circumstances, and health (to name but a few variables) creates a sense of helplessness, fuelling the creation of overwhelm.

Preventing and overcoming overwhelm

The good news is that overwhelm doesn’t have to become your reality. Here are some strategies to prevent it from getting hold or escalating. 

  • Prioritise. Learn to say no. Do only what you can with your current capacity. Focus your energy on what is, to you, most important.
  • Listen to your inner signals. When you are feeling too stretched, when you don’t have time to think, when you are feeling tense, listen to your emotions; they are telling you something. They are telling you that you need to change something. When your mind, body and emotions tell you that you can’t do any more, listen to, and act on, those signals.
  • Set boundaries and limits. Establish clear boundaries of what you will and will not take on in terms of work load. Set boundaries between work and personal life. Disconnect during your off-time to allow yourself time for rest and recuperation. Speak to any elite performer in any field, and they will tell you that rest time is as important, if not more so, than training time.
  • Meditation and deep breathing can help manage stress and cultivate inner calm. Step back, observe your thoughts and feelings, then once you have re-established your balance, respond calmly.
  • Progress not perfection. Shift from striving for perfection to a growth mindset. Focus on learning and progress, not just the end result.
  • Look after you. Cliché or not, “the graveyard is full of people who thought they were indispensable” is true. Make sure you are not someone who dies from an overwhelm induced illness, accident, or suicide. 

Final thoughts

Whatever pressure you feel you are under, taking time out to regain your balance almost always helps.

Almost always if overwhelm starts to get a grip, when it escalates, it does so as a series of self-worsening vicious cycles. For some, overwhelm is fatal. Preventing overwhelm starting a downward spiral is wise. 

From the information provided, what early warning signals will you memorise, that you can use to alert you the possibility of overwhelm?  

Now that you are more aware of the dangers of overwhelm, what will you do today, to make sure you always regain clarity before overwhelm takes over?




Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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