When I’m overwhelmed and have too much to do, I have to fight the urge to work even harder. But it’s a worthy battle, since my health and sanity are at stake.
For many highly sensitive people, getting overwhelmed, or overaroused, is a familiar experience. We each have our habitual way of dealing with that feeling of “too many things happening all at once.” I kick into overdrive. It’s as if I’ve signed an invisible contract that says, “When the going gets tough, put your head down and work harder.”
I’m not alone. In our society, working too hard is a socially sanctioned addiction. Sensitive people succumb to it easily because we are naturally conscientious. We’d rather persevere to a point of exhaustion than lower our standards or, even worse, let other people down. Also, the frantic pace of the hamster wheel, unpleasant as it is, may be shielding us from feeling things we are even more afraid to feel.
I’ve run myself into the ground countless times this way in the past. Now, I’m what you could call a recovering over-worker. My “recovery” started when I sat myself down one day, determined to understand once and for all what was driving this exhausting pattern.
A couple hours and several pieces of paper later, I had identified the two beliefs that were driving me:
- If I just work hard enough, I can get everything done.
- Once I get everything done, I can finally relax.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the problems here
For one thing, I realized I was crazy to believe that by working hard enough, I could “get everything done.” I will never be done. I tried to imagine a scenario in which I had nothing left on my to-do list. I realized I’d have to be dead. (I was ridiculously proud of myself for figuring this out. But then, I’m no rocket scientist.)
What about the second statement, then? No doubt, relaxing is a wonderful thing. I’m a huge fan of relaxing. However, if everything has to be done for me to be able to relax, I’m in trouble…because, as we’ve established, to be alive is to have an unfinished “to-do” list.
Does all this feel familiar to you? I’ve resorted to all these at one time or another:
- Opt out: Withdraw and go numb (climb back into bed, binge on Netflix, etc.)
- Soothe yourself with food: Eat something to try to calm the stress.
- Obsessively problem-solve how to get everything done: This can include making all sorts of schedules and lists.
- Get sick: Sometimes our bodies take over and give us a break when we can’t give it to ourselves.
- Blow up: HSPs can be deeply kind and considerate. We can also lose it spectacularly when we are overwhelmed.
I invite you to take a minute to identify your go-to coping mechanisms for overwhelm. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin your sanity restoration process simply by noticing you are overwhelmed. “Noticing” is the first of six strategies you can employ to move from overwhelm back to equanimity when you have too much to do all at once. Let’s look at these in more detail.
1—Notice you are overwhelmed
HSPs get overwhelmed more easily than other people. Our nervous systems are built to process deeply. That is, we take in more information from our environment and process it in a more granular way. In addition to this general tendency, two other factors determine our level of overwhelm:
- The speed with which information or experiences come at us
- The volume or intensity of stimulation we are fielding
We may not be able to control the speed and intensity with which events are happening. But we can slow down the way we experience events. This makes it easier to process them. To do this, catch yourself. Then simply notice you feel overwhelmed.
You might be thinking, “Are you kidding? How can I I notice when I’m overwhelmed?!” Indeed. But there is a difference between being in a mind state, and consciously noting that mind state. To consciously note that you are overwhelmed, you can say to yourself, “Wow, I am really overwhelmed right now!” Even this simple act of witnessing can offer you some relief.
Next, try saying, “I’m sensing I am really overwhelmed right now.” When you add “I’m sensing”, you are using what Focusers call “presence language.” You are engaging in meta-level cognition: that is, you are becoming aware of your own thinking. You now have an adult at the wheel. I call this Loving Adult Presence.
2—Pause and check in
Once you’ve succeeded in consciously noticing you are overwhelmed, you will begin to calm down. If there’s some physical action you can take immediately, by all means take it. For example, whenever we make pizza, it sets off the smoke detector in the kitchen. That sound sends me instantly into overwhelm, so turning off the smoke detector is the obvious first step.
But we’ve been talking about a more complex kind of overwhelm—the kind that arises from having too many tasks and too little time. In this case, you will need to take internal steps before taking any external action.
The first internal step is very simple. Pause. Ask yourself, “How is it to be me, right now, with all this going on?” Take a good 30 seconds to sense inside (the body takes longer than the mind to respond to a request.)
30 seconds will feel like an eternity, and you will be tempted to return to your habitual coping strategy. Resist this urge. Instead, assert your Loving Adult Presence by acknowledging what is happening. This small act of self-empathy can make a big difference in how you feel.
3—Take an inventory from your body
Now you are ready to address the external sources of the overwhelm from a more spacious presence in yourself. You will approach the raging river of overwhelm, but rather than jump into it, you will keep your feet solidly grounded on the bank.
From this perspective, take an inventory of the stressors that are affecting you. However, don’t do this from your head. Instead, invite your body to show you what it is most concerned about, right now.
Once again, give your body a full 30 seconds to come up with the thing that is bothering it the most right now. When an answer comes, jot it down on a piece of paper. Then wait. Let the next item arise in your awareness.
Resist the tendency to hurry. If you get impatient and arbitrarily pick an item, you’ll be back in the river before you know it. But if you let your body sort out your list for you, you’ll notice yourself calming down more and more. Patiently repeat, “What wants my attention next?” Then wait. Write down each item.
4— Ask, “What absolutely must happen now?”
Once you’ve completed steps one, two, and three above, you may find you are quite calm. Your priorities have become clear, and you know what to do. If so, you don’t need the next three steps.
If you find yourself gazing at your list in dismay, though, ask yourself another question: “What absolutely must happen now?” Be scrupulously honest. Many items will drop off your list. They can wait.
At the emergency room, you see a triage nurse first. This nurse decides who will be seen first. A gunshot wound to the abdomen gets priority over the flu. Take your list through this triage process and decide what is truly most important. This may sound obvious, but surprisingly often, urgency can drown out true importance.
5–Take the actions you’ve determined are most important
This is deceptively simple. It’s easy to get distracted again if the voice of urgency drowns out the voice of true importance. Keep it simple and do exactly what you determined was most important, in order of importance.
6–Take time later to look at the bigger picture
What contributed to this configuration of events that left you feeling so overwhelmed? From Loving Adult Presence, you can observe and ponder this important question. Sometimes, circumstances arise that are unforeseen and utterly out of our control. You deal with these as best you can.
On the other hand, you may notice recurring patterns of overwhelm. If you get in a rush every morning leaving for work and get overwhelmed, some advance planning could make all the difference.
That’s an obvious example, but keep your eye out for more subtle instances. HSPs can be very good at figuring out new systems, once we see what we need and accept that we deserve to have systems in place to help us stay calm.
Let your body surprise you
As you work your way through these steps, something unexpected may happen. There will be times when you’ve assumed you are overwhelmed because of all the stuff you have to do, but the real reason is something quite different.
Specifically, you may be overaroused because you have too many unprocessed experiences bouncing around in you. Deep processing is not merely a preference for sensitive people: it is a reality of our neurobiology. It is also a need. When that need goes unmet, the constant demands of life can start to feel overwhelming to us.
I remember experiencing this phenomenon myself in a Focusing partnership session. I felt like a chicken running around with its head cut off, bouncing between half a dozen stressful topics. I was even stressing myself trying to decide which one to Focus on.
Then I remembered I could take an “overwhelm inventory.” So I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, took a breath, and invited my body to show me what wanted my attention first. What came completely surprised me. I heard my body was saying, “Please, can we take time to savor how good it feels to have completed teaching a successful series of classes last night?”
What a revelation. I had been utterly sure the overwhelm was a result of my list of external stressors and to-do items. Instead, I discovered a need to celebrate. Who knew? My joyful experience of the class, in its unprocessed state, was causing a surprisingly high level of overarousal in me. Once I took time to celebrate, my rushing river of overwhelm shrank to a pleasantly babbling brook.
Had I addressed the overwhelm in my usual way—by sitting down and making a list from my head—the need for processing about the teaching would never have come up. Instead, I paused, acknowledged the overwhelm, and took inventory from my body. This kind of pausing and sensing has become a key element of my self-care as a workaholic-in-recovery.
Note: This is a substantially edited version of the article which first appeared here on April 2, 2019.