how 2 not be overwhelmed
some advice column content
I got an email recently asking if I had any resources or advice on dealing with overwhelm, and I thought, that is a very good question!!!
My answers, maybe, are not conventional. We all know you can make a list or like, download an app that gamifies your tasks or whatever, but I don’t believe in life hacks, so you will not find that kind of listicle here.
Avoiding overwhelm is a constant balancing act for me, but most of it has to do with understanding my limits and knowing when I need to say no. This is something I had to learn (am still learning), something I denied for most of my life. (“You can do anything you set your mind to!!” lol no)
Learning about your limits takes time, and it’s not really something you can do in the middle of a breakdown. If you’re in the midst of overwhelm, the first and most important thing is to:
Just take your whole entire to do list, throw it away, and lay down. Turn off all the lights. Go to sleep.
If you absolutely cannot do this:
Ask Someone For Help
Other people are great for getting us through it. Whatever it is. Maybe you need someone to help you organize, or make a plan, or maybe you just need someone to sit there doing their thing while you do your thing because that makes it, for some reason, feel doable. I wouldn’t survive without people I could ask for help.
See also: this study titled “No Way Out Except From External Intervention” — it’s on autistic inertia specifically, but I think it’s probably quite relatable for many of the chronically overwhelmed, whatever your labels (“ADHD paralysis” / “the freeze state”). One of the participants, Elizabeth, says:
The only thing that helps me, only thing that works, and it works consistently, is just to have a stuck buddy that I text. … And all I have to do is text, ‘I’m stuck.’ […] And we just text it out and kind of make a plan.
It’s also important, after you’ve gotten through the worst moments and can self-reflect again, to figure out the shape of your overwhelm, because as much as the biomedical among us would like us to believe it’s some kind of meaningless brain dysfunction, there’s always context and usually, reasons.
What feelings are lying underneath it? (Check the feelings wheel.) Are you afraid of failure? Anxious about uncertainty? Do you feel shame or guilt? Why?
Don’t forget your physical feelings! Sensation and emotion are often (always?) connected. Is a light too bright? Are you hungry? Can you put on headphones? What if you bounced or paced a little? What if you left and went somewhere more comfortable?
For me, overwhelm happens when:
I’m given an organization-heavy task with too little direction (too many variables! too many very small decisions to overthink!)
I’m extremely anxious about not being Perfect (which does not exist but alas, I still get tricked into worrying about it)
I feel ashamed that I’m not going fast enough
That last one is basically the entire reason for this here slug ethos I have been concocting. I can’t ever be fast enough, so instead of continually trying and pushing myself into chronic overwhelm, I am working on leaning into the slowness instead (Slowing down to get stuff done, as Marta says).
When you deny that you have limits, you get overwhelmed in a chronic way, don’t understanding why, and hate yourself for it. Learning my limits was especially hard because they come up so much faster than everyone else’s — like, I need a couple days to recover from something most people can do multiple times in one day, I have to lay down in the dark after I go grocery shopping, etc.
I expected myself to be able to keep up with everyone else, and this led to chronic shame and recurrent overwhelm when I couldn’t. Chronic overwhelm leads to burnout, an even more difficult state of stuckness to escape.
Here’s a chart from another great study that explains how this works:
Expectations outweigh abilities is a great way to explain all of this, really. It’s not always possible to change external expectations, like your job requirements or caretaking responsibilities, but you can lower your own expectations of yourself.
Just take those babies and bring them right down to the floor. Tuck them into a cozy little corner. Half-ass things, and don’t feel bad about it. Do the least possible work required to complete a task. Embrace mediocrity, especially when it’s things you have to do but absolutely don’t care about, like a job you hate or a school assignment that’s boring. The game is rigged. Save your energy for the things (and people!) you love.
How do ya’ll deal with overwhelm? Let’s discuss in the comments, and if you have a question you might like to see answered in the newsletter, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!