Springtime always reminds me of the end of the school year, and of the spelling bee competition that took place annually at my grade school. Competitors would be told a word, and then be asked to say the word, spell it and use it correctly in a sentence. This process helped the student to focus on the word, its spelling and its use. Let’s try it with the word of the week — overwhelmed. O-V-E-R-W-H-E-L-M-E-D. Use it in a sentence: I am completely overwhelmed by my life.
If you look up the word overwhelmed, one definition says: “Covered or buried beneath a mass of something.” That seems to sum it up nicely. Buried beneath a mass of something. Anything. By the time you hit the point of feeling overwhelmed, it almost doesn’t matter what the root cause is — unless you want to do something about it.
Any number of things can make us feel overwhelmed. The cause could be work, friends, enemies, outside commitments, family responsibilities, clutter, financial problems, inundation by social media, traditional media, news, fake news, or any combination thereof.
Part of the problem is that the human body wasn’t actually designed to live in the kind of world that we live in today. Our brains were designed to aid us in acquiring what we needed to survive. Historically, focusing on one objective at a time facilitated survival. We really aren’t made to multitask, and in fact we don’t. Studies show that while it may appear that we are doing several things at once, we are actually focusing very quickly on multiple tasks in rapid succession. Research shows that this type of ‘multitasking’ over long periods increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol, along with the hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and negatively impact your ability to think clearly.
For example, let’s look at how we attempt to multitask just getting to the workplace. We get into the car and our brain has to process: 1) how to drive the vehicle, 2) how to navigate the traffic, and 3) how to react to traffic controls. Then the phone rings, so we need to be able to 1) listen, 2) process the conversation, and 3) process responses to the conversation, all while carrying out the first three tasks related to driving. No wonder you arrive at work feeling frazzled. You have already forced your brain into overdrive (pun intended) just getting to work.
Every day we are bombarded with information, not just from supervisors, family and co-workers, but from a multitude of media sources. We are being asked to pay attention to hundreds of things during the course of a single day. When you check your social media accounts, you don’t just see postings by friends, you also are exposed to a wide variety of advertisements and news stories, all vying for your attention. Every time you check the internet, you become victim to ads for the last item you searched for online, through the creepy magic of retargeting.
It is little wonder that individuals find themselves on overload. So, how can we stop it? A good place to start is with a deep breath. When you take deep, slow (diaphragmatic) breaths, a number of things happen in your body. Your muscles relax, your blood pressure lowers, and oxygen delivery to your body improves. This helps you to think more clearly, among other things. Second, practice focusing your attention on one thing at a time. It seems odd that this is something that a person would have to practice, but in this day and age, it is.
Trying to focus on several things at once creates a kind of mental paralysis that keeps you from moving forward. As you are doing your deep breathing, close your eyes and think of one item to focus on. For example, you could focus on anything in your office that is green. Open your eyes and scan the room only for items that are green. Close your eyes again and choose some other singular type of item for your focusing. Repeat this several times. This activity trains you to eliminate distractions. Once you are accustomed to doing this, take that skill to your to-do list.
Prioritize your list, focusing on the first item. Don’t think about the rest of the tasks until you have accomplished the first item. This can help to ward off the mental paralysis that comes with trying to do too many things at once.
Enlisting the help of others is another way to keep feelings of being overwhelmed at bay. Ask friends, co-workers or family to assist you. Many people are afraid to ask for help. Don’t be. It can lessen your stress fairly dramatically. You could also work with someone trained in Emotional Freedom Techniques (commonly known as tapping) to help you with feelings of being overwhelmed. It can help you to eliminate distractions and focus on yourself and your needs.
Another useful method for easing feelings of being overwhelmed is to take a few minutes away from your work. Our bodies are designed to move. Sitting at a desk all day exacerbates stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Getting away from your projects can help you to think through solutions to problems that evade you as you sit, immersed in your work.
Trying some of these practices can help you to be less stressed and less likely to feel overwhelmed.•
Jonna Kane MacDougall is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-775-1804 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.