So You're Feeling Overwhelmed

  • December 15, 2017

Here are four things you can do to combat it. 

Being overwhelmed comes naturally to us Americans—it’s our cultural default. Whether due to work stress, social obligations, or our self-imposed expectations, we remain constantly inundated. This makes us poor managers of ourselves but also less effective at our work and with others. 

Most prescriptions for battling the overwhelm—even those found in some of the best self-development books—prove ineffective because they advocate focusing on ourselves as the locus of control and responsibility. We traditionally assume we can singlehandedly manage it all, and along with that grandiose self-assessment comes an over-estimation of our ability to do just that.

So how do we stop feeling so overwhelmed all the time? According to Laura Vandernoot Lipsky, pioneer in the trauma exposure field and author of the bestselling book Trauma Stewardship we need start by addressing our own role in creating that feeling. We must give up control and attachment to outcomes, focus less on the things we do on a large scale, and instead focus on the smaller scale on the things we commonly overlook but really should do more of.

Laura recommends four core practices to manage our stress: 

1. Work less, focus more

We overwork ourselves regularly because we believe an excess of labor logically results in an excess of good results. Well, logic may suggest that more work equals more impact, but reality disproves it. Instead, plan your time to focus on practical and measurable achievements and outcomes. We can spend hours and hours each day fighting something on a personal or social level, but how many of those hours prove fruitful or have real impact? Focus on the specifics and results you can actually achieve and measure within reasonable time frames.

2. Accumulate less, detox more

With social media, merciless news cycles, and an infinite number of information outlets, it can be hard to escape from the constant rush of the doom-and-gloom. Pretty soon, you begin absorbing and accumulating the mental sludge from all that you consume until its sheer weight renders you immobile. Be informed, but be selective and realize that being informed of everything doesn’t help as much as add to the pile of outrage and overwhelm already built up in your mind. Instead, spend more time clearing your mind (mindfulness and meditation, exercise, caring for animals, etc.) and detoxing it. A lighter mind demonstrates an agility and resilience a weighted-down mind lacks. 

3. Know less, learn more 

We all like to believe we know what exactly needs to be done in any scenario. Look on Facebook and you’ll see men and women who couldn’t even get elected as their class treasurer in 7th grade telling everyone what will save the nation’s budget, Nobel-Prize winning economists be damned. We all do it, and it represents a something that both drains us while keeping us ignorant. The alternative to knowing so much and insisting others hear you? Learning. Try listening to what the other side or just other people have to say. You will emerge smarter and more humbler than any of these leaders and be far more effective in working with others. And you will also recognize the relief that comes from not being so damn right all the time. 

4. Control less, be present more

An old joke asks: How do you make god laugh? Tell him your plans. Control is, ultimately, an illusion. Trying to control outcomes does nothing but overwhelm you in two ways: constant planning for the outcome you want (see joke above) and also constant frustration when the outcome you want fails to come to pass (also see joke above). Taoists often argue that you can paddle a boat, but ultimately, the currents decide where to take you. So recognize that there are currents and stop trying to control them. See where they carry you and observe and be present to that. You may find yourself surprised at how well your intended destination and your observed destinations share commonalities and rewards. 

These approaches require emotional discipline. It can be difficult to break old habits, and you may find yourself repeating old patterns from time to time. In the end, it’s about recognizing you are not the source of all change, but the vessel for it. As a vessel, you can’t carry the whole river, but you can carry enough to sustain yourself and others.

This article is based on the work of Laura Vandernoot Lipsky, the author of the bestselling book Trauma Stewardship and the forthcoming book The Age of Overwhelm.

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