19: How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed

What are the circumstances in your life that often bring up overwhelm for you? I’ve noticed that there are very specific situations that are a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of overwhelm to fester for me, and it’s easy to assume every human across the globe experiences the same. But the truth is, they don’t. 

Whether it’s unpredictable obstacles coming up in your already tight schedule, figuring out when you have time to workout, or who’s dropping off and picking up the kids, we all have our own unique triggers that sweep us up in an ever-enlarging snowball drama of overwhelm. Whatever your perfect recipe for overwhelm is, the good news is I know a way to quickly pivot from overwhelm to a different emotional state. 

Tune in this week to discover how to bring levity to your overwhelm. I’m sharing the observations I’ve made of my own overwhelm experience, what you can do when you’re in the thick of it, and my four-step process for handling any situation in which you feel totally consumed by overwhelm.

Habits on Purpose | How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed

What are the circumstances in your life that often bring up overwhelm for you? I’ve noticed that there are very specific situations that are a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of overwhelm to fester for me, and it’s easy to assume every human across the globe experiences the same. But the truth is, they don’t.

Habits on Purpose | How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed

Whether it’s unpredictable obstacles coming up in your already tight schedule, figuring out when you have time to workout, or who’s dropping off and picking up the kids, we all have our own unique triggers that sweep us up in an ever-enlarging snowball drama of overwhelm. Whatever your perfect recipe for overwhelm is, the good news is I know a way to quickly pivot from overwhelm to a different emotional state.

Tune in this week to discover how to bring levity to your overwhelm. I’m sharing the observations I’ve made of my own overwhelm experience, what you can do when you’re in the thick of it, and my four-step process for handling any situation in which you feel totally consumed by overwhelm.

The next round of Habits on Purpose for Physicians (HOPP) CME Small Group Coaching Program is currently open for enrollment! If you’re a female physician who wants to better understand your habits and learn to apply pragmatic tools to create new ones, click this link to find out more! And if you are a trainee, resident, or fellow, there are a few scholarship spots where you can join the program for free.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The observations I’ve made in hindsight of my own experience of overwhelm. 
  • What you can do in the thick of overwhelm to pivot to a different emotional state. 
  • Why our circumstances don’t cause the feeling of overwhelm, and what does. 
  • 2 questions to help you find the core thought underneath a surface thought. 
  • How overwhelm is likely driving inaction in your life. 
  • 4 steps to handle feeling overwhelmed.  

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Full Episode Transcript:

This is Kristi, and you’re listening to Episode 19: How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed. Today, we’ll talk about what creates overwhelm, and how to deal with it in the moment.

Welcome to Habits On Purpose, a podcast for high-achieving women who want to create lifelong habits and feel as good on the inside as they look on paper. You'll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that will help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel, and act as you do so you can learn to create habits that give more than they take. And now, here's your host physician and Master Certified Life Coach Kristi Angevine.

Hello, everyone. I so love doing this podcast. Very similar to coaching my clients. With my clients, I spend a lot of time thinking about them. And similarly, I spend a lot of time thinking about you, my listeners. I think about what your struggles might be. I think about your challenges. I think about what might be useful, and how to distill ideas or tell stories that come alive, and give you the most impact possible.

And, I love picturing you listening to the podcast, maybe as you're driving your car, or as you're exercising. In my mind's eye, I can picture you hearing about a concept or hearing some offhand comment, and I love thinking about you finding it even more helpful than I can actually imagine it might be.

So, to those of you, who are the avid listeners, it is so great to have you here. And if you're new, welcome. Now, if you haven't already done so, and you're listening on iTunes, after you listen, if you'd be willing to leave a review of the podcast, it would mean so much to me. Reviews are one way that other prospective listeners can decide if this podcast is a match for what they're looking for.

So, for today, let's dive into overwhelm. I've actually spent a lot of my life feeling the emotion of overwhelm. Well, to be a little bit more clear, I've spent a lot of my life, probably resisting the emotion of overwhelm. Now, pre-coaching, when I felt this emotion, I would either be fully consumed with the feeling, or I would try to suppress it and outlast it with sheer grit. And I assumed it was an inevitable part of my experience as a human.

Until I discovered thought-work and somatic work in coaching, I didn't realize the role that I was playing in creating my own overwhelm. I also didn't realize how to handle things when I was consumed by it, much less how to prevent it, other than by maybe going on vacation, which sidenote, does not actually cure overwhelm, it just kicks that can down the road.

Now, before I go on to talking about overwhelm, specifically, I want to emphasize that a large part of my approach with this podcast and with coaching my clients is to always model for you what it looks like to number one, be a human figuring out your way. And number two, what it looks like to apply the tools and concepts that I teach, even if it's not 100%. perfect.

I agree with Kara Loewentheil, who often says you can do a lot with a half-managed mind. Hell, we do so much without being very intentional at all. Just think about what's possible if you were 10%, more deliberate. Or, if you had awareness of thoughts, feelings, parts, actions, even just half of the time. So, when it comes to overwhelm, now that I've immersed myself in the world of coaching, emotional learning, thought-work, somatic work, I have a very different view and a very different experience of the emotion of overwhelm.

But that doesn't mean I don't still feel it. And it doesn't mean that sometimes I don't revert back to my old responses to it. The difference now is, I am quicker to notice it. And I don't make myself wrong for feeling it. Currently, I now know what I need to do to get out of it.

So, this episode is prompted by the last few weeks or so, when I was feeling a lot of overwhelm, and a slew of related emotions that, for me, travel with overwhelm, kind of like a rowdy gang. Those emotions being anxiety, pressure, worry, discouragement, confusion. What was happening for me, was I looked at my schedule and I instantly felt overwhelmed. I looked at my goals for myself, and I instantly felt overwhelmed.

Basically, what I want to share with you today is the observations that I have made, so that you can better understand your own overwhelm. I'm going to share what I noticed in myself, and elaborate on what commonly happens when we feel the emotion of overwhelm. And then, I'll talk about a few things that you can do in the thick of feeling overwhelm, that will help you pivot to a different emotional state.

So, let's talk about what I noticed over the last few weeks. First, I didn't actually notice the things I'm about to tell you, while I was in the feeling of overwhelm. I had this awareness afterwards. And this is a really common sequence. We have retrospective awareness first, and then over time, we can nudge that awareness closer to the present moment.

So, in hindsight, this is what I noticed. First of all, I noticed there are some very predictable circumstances in which it's easy for me to feel overwhelmed. And these circumstances are as follows, and you can see if any of these you can relate to.

It's easy for me to feel overwhelmed when I'm in the middle of learning how to do something new. When unexpected things happen and take up time that I thought I had available for something else. And when I add to that experimenting with how to structure my schedule, for example, when and how much to work, and who's picking up and dropping off the kids, and when I'm going to exercise, etc. These things are my personal, ripe breeding ground for the emotion of overwhelm.

Now, noticing these circumstances is very useful, because it can help me anticipate the emotion in the future. But it's really, really important to emphasize that it's not because of the circumstances that I felt overwhelmed. The only reason, over the last few weeks that I felt overwhelmed, was because of what I've been thinking in the circumstances.

If it were the actual act of learning something new, experimenting with how I structure my time, or having unpredictable things happen, that were the cause of overwhelm, then all humans across the entire globe, would always feel overwhelmed in these situations. But they don't. All humans don't have the same experience because it's not the circumstances that make us feel overwhelmed. It's what we think in those scenarios that creates the overwhelm.

So, just like the babysitting analogy, that so many of you liked from Episode 13, each of us brings different thoughts to similar circumstances. And therefore, each of us can have different experiences, in the same set of circumstances.

Some people thrive when they're learning new things. Some people thrive when they're trial and error-ing what works and what doesn't in their schedule. Some people love and have so much fun when there are curveballs. Other people get overwhelmed when things are predictable and stable. The only difference boils down to what we are currently thinking in the circumstances.

So, to be really specific, for my situation, my schedule wasn't working as I'd hoped. We had some vehicular travel that required trips to the mechanic and musical cars. One of our kids got sick and stayed home from school. A few things took longer than I expected. It rained when I wasn't expecting it to, so my biking plans for one day evaporated. I didn't get great sleep one night and I found myself really tired. And just for extra fun, I had some enhanced emotional lability related to PMS.

Ultimately, I didn't have as much time as I expected or hoped, to accomplish the things that I wanted to accomplish. And in hindsight, I can see it's like a recipe: one cup of car trouble, plus a tablespoon of a sick kiddo, mixed with four ounces of thunderstorms, filled in two teaspoons of PMS, bake at 350°. And voilà, Kristi feels over-freaking-whelmed. Not because of those particular circumstances, but because of what it is so easy for me to think, in that recipe.

We each have things that make certain emotions more likely. So, what about you when you think about overwhelm? What circumstances are a breeding ground for overwhelm to grow for you?

Now let's talk about the next phase of my observations. These observations focus on what actually created the overwhelm for me. What was I thinking that made me feel overwhelmed? For me, the experience of overwhelm is similar to anxiety. Often, it feels like the emotion is there before I noticed any thoughts.

But once I slow down and take the time to write down what I'm thinking, I found variations of these thoughts… Thoughts like: I don't have enough time. There's no way I can do this. I'm so behind. I'm really off track. I don't know what to do. Now, I want you to notice that these sentiments might not create overwhelm for everyone, but they created overwhelm for me.

But here's the interesting part. If someone were to say to me, “Hey, do you want to stay and have another cup of coffee?” I might think, “I don't have enough time.” And I might feel just matter of fact. In another circumstance, I could think, “I don't know what to do here.” And I might feel the emotion of curious.

Or, it could be noon, and I'm supposed to be somewhere at 12:15 p.m. And say I'm in traffic that's making it impossible to get to my destination until 12:45 p.m. And I could think, “I'm really off track.” And when I think that I might feel angry, or I might feel discouraged. Or, I might just feel calm and thinking, “You know, right now I'm off track from the preexisting schedule. No biggie.”

The reason I go through these variations, on these thoughts, is to emphasize this one thing. The reason the thoughts I mentioned create overwhelm for me, is because there's an implicit, unspoken sentiment embedded in each one. Or, in other words, there's a thought inside the thought, check this out.

Overwhelm doesn't come from thinking, “I don't have enough time.” It comes from thinking, “I don't have enough time and that's problem.” Overwhelm doesn't come from thinking, “There's no way I can do this.” But it comes from, “There's no way I can do this, and I should have done better.”

It doesn't come from thinking, “I'm so behind. And I'm really off track.” It comes from thinking, “I'm so behind. I'm really off track, and things are supposed to go differently.” Overwhelmed, doesn't come from thinking, “I don't know what to do.” But it comes from thinking, “I don't know what to do. And that means I'm incapable.”

Let's briefly talk about how you can find the thought, inside the thought. The core thought underneath the surface thought. The way you do this, is you write down the thoughts that are creating your emotion that you want to investigate. For here, we're talking about the thoughts that create overwhelm.

Once you write them down, you actually interrogate your thoughts by asking two questions. The questions are So, what? and Why? This creates a little dialog that might sound like this.

If the first thought is, “I don't know what to do.” The question is, “So what, that you don't know what to do?” The answer, “I'm supposed to know. Why? Because other people know how to figure this out. So what? So, that means there's something wrong with me. That must mean I'm incapable.”

This is the process by which we better discern what actual thoughts are present for us, and what might be creating overwhelm, and all the accompanying emotions like discouragement, confusion, anxiety, etc.

So, all this, to say, no matter the particular circumstances, overwhelm comes from something we are thinking. Comes from a narrative that we are believing. And sometimes we need to scratch the surface to get below the surface level thoughts, to figure out what we're actually thinking that’s creating the overwhelm.

Now, all of this, to say, once we find ourselves deep in the emotion of overwhelm, what do we actually do? What behaviors follow? Well, usually there's a lot of external inaction. But a lot of things going on in our minds. For some of us overwhelm feels fast and urgent. And for others of us, or at other times, it can feel like a freeze response.

The actions we take, might look like this. And as you listen to what I say, think about how they might look for you. When we feel overwhelmed, we spin on our to-do list and we go over and over and over, looking at all the things we haven't yet done. We repetitively catalog what we have left to do. We might expand the scope of our problem from; the laundry, to cleaning the entire house, to planning our entire life, to finishing everything that's left to finish at work.

We might fixate on how little time is left. Focus on our faults, on mistakes, on problems, without brainstorming any sort of solutions. We ask ourselves unproductive questions like, “Why does this always happen? How can I do this? Why can't this be easier? What's my problem?” We perhaps, recall similar situations. We catastrophize and imagine how bad things will be in the future. When we feel overwhelmed, we often generalize. If I can't take care of this one thing, how am I supposed to lead the entire department?

Overwhelm drives beating ourselves up. It also drives spinning in confusion, with a lot of thoughts like, “I don't know what to do. I don't know how to do this. I don't know what's next.” Overwhelm can drive us to compare ourselves, and compare our particular lot in life to others, unfavorably, who seemed to have it all together. Overwhelmed can drive us to procrastinate, get snippy, try to control things, try to control people, get really bossy, be really authoritative.

And what don't we do when we feel overwhelmed? We don't slow down. We don't see the big picture. We don't find center. We don't brainstorm concrete solutions. We don't take small, tiny action towards one singular thing. We don't wonder what we need most, in the moment. And ultimately, all of this makes it so that we don't use the time that we do have very well. We actually stay behind. And we create a reality where we exhaust ourselves and we can't see any way out.

So, what is one to do, to shift away from overwhelm when you're deeply in it? Well, there are four things that I think are really effective. And you can pick one and do just one, or you can mix and match, or you can do all four. What all four of these things have in common is a deliberate slowing down in order to focus on something tangible. The main aim, when you notice you're overwhelmed, is to soothe yourself and find your way back to an emotional steady ground.

So here are the four pieces you can try. Number one, compassion towards yourself. Number two, awareness. Number three, identifying what you need. And number four, doing one thing. Now, so that you can remember these four steps, I call it the can-do technique. As an acronym, CAN-DO. And, like most acronyms, it's a bit corny, but I think it might help remind you of what the steps are. And, remind you that while you're actually doing these steps, you're literally demonstrating the namesake of exhibiting a willingness to deal with problems.

That can-do attitude, which is basically a determination to take on whatever comes up, and take action instead of giving up. So, C, is for compassion. A is for awareness. N is for needs, and DO is for, do one thing. CAN-DO.

Let's talk about each of these. Number one is self-compassion. This is probably the single most powerful thing that you can tap into. And for some of you, it will not be easy. But even if it's difficult, repetitively trying to tap into it will pay off. Not only will repetition help you remember, you could offer this to yourself in the future. But as you do it, you'll uncover what's in the way for you, when it comes to giving yourself acceptance, warmth, and grace.

And once you know, what's blocking you, from providing yourself with self-compassion, you have something else to investigate and explore. So, let's talk about why compassion is so important. Overwhelm is unpleasant. But what can make it extra challenging and extra unpleasant, is when we resist it, and try to push it away, and judge it. Making yourself wrong for a feeling is the most efficient way to make things harder on yourself. Which is why self-compassion, otherwise known as acceptance, warmth, and kindness towards yourself, is so incredibly effective.

So, while we're talking about this, let's take a minute and normalize the experience of overwhelm. It is very understandable and very reasonable to experience it. Why is it reasonable? You're in a set of circumstances where it's easy to have certain thoughts that create it. It's actually very logical, and therefore, very understandable. Acknowledging that overwhelm is reasonable and understandable, is foundational for accessing self-compassion.

Just for a minute, right now, I want you to feel into how this idea feels. Your feelings, they make sense. They are not wrong. Overwhelm make sense. I'm curious, how do you feel when you feel into that idea? Most of the time, when we feel into a sentiment like this, it brings a sense of relief, and acceptance.

Now, when you tap into self-compassion, you may actually find that there are other strong emotions that come to the surface. When you give yourself some compassion, when you're feeling overwhelmed, you may feel really, really sad, or really, really angry. Or, you might notice that you're absolutely utterly exhausted. Oftentimes, when we are judging or resisting overwhelm, we're not able to access these other emotions that are behind the overwhelm. So, with self-compassion and acceptance, you can uncover the other, more primary, feelings that are behind and underneath overwhelm.

And when you do, it's a chance to give those emotions the space and time they need to just be there. When it comes to the emotions, underneath the emotions, it helps me to think of emotions as living things that require certain things to thrive. From this point of view, a feeling wants to be felt. So, it's useful to give a feeling time and space to express itself.

Meaning, if you feel sad, it's useful to give that sadness some time and space to just be there for you. If it helps you, you can even personify your emotions, like they did in that animated feature, Inside Out. And you can think of your sadness, your anxiety, your anger, your overwhelm, like an individual entity that has something to say, that has something that they want to express. So that is self-compassion.

The next approach for overwhelm is simply awareness. What this means is noticing when you feel overwhelmed, and pausing. You know those stop-drop-and-roll drills that they had from elementary school when they're talking about fires. Instead of stop-drop-and-roll, awareness of overwhelm simply requires you to notice your overwhelm and stop.

So basically, instead of stop-drop-and-roll, it's notice and stop. Stop whatever you're doing. Stop whatever you're thinking. Stop beating yourself up. Stop flitting around from one thing to the next. Stop catastrophizing. Stop. And gently do anything that you'd like to do, to bring awareness to what you're feeling, to what you're doing, or to what you’re thinking.

You can do this with the narration technique from Episode 4. And as you do this, you get to remind yourself, “Overwhelm comes from how I'm thinking. It's not because there's something wrong with me. This feeling is here because of my thoughts. It's not the number of things to do on my to-do list that's causing my feeling. It's what I'm thinking. And, this is great news, because that means things outside of me don't need to change, for me to pause my overwhelm.”

Now, the reason why bringing awareness is effective for pivoting from overwhelm. When you deliberately notice your overwhelm, and bring a firm stop to what you're currently thinking, feeling, and doing. You open yourself up to the opportunity to think something differently.

Now, the third step here is, N for needs. What you do is, when you notice you're feeling overwhelmed, you ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” You might say, “What I need is for administration to properly staff this unit. For my emails, in my box, to be down to zero. For no more phone calls to come in, so I can get a 30-minute nap before I have to go to the O.R. That is what I need.”

But since we don't have magical powers to control the universe, and change the entire system, like I wish we could, what we're looking for with this question of, what do I need right now? Is beyond the specifics of the circumstances. Do you need reassurance that everything's going to be okay? Do you crave normalization? To know that others would feel this way too? Do you need encouragement, or perspective? Or, to know that rest is coming. Or, to understand that you will figure it out. Asking, what do I need right now? And answering that, is a way of just articulating what you need.

And in the moment of overwhelm, articulating what you need, is a way to self-soothe and find calm, even if the things that you need aren't actually readily available.

Now finally, the fourth thing is the DO part. And what this means is, to pick and do one single thing. Now, you can do this part after you've tapped into self-compassion, stopped, and brought awareness to your experience, figured out what you need. Or, you can do this step all on its own.

So how does it work? As soon as you notice you're feeling overwhelmed, you pick a concrete thing to do, and you go do it. This might be that you pick to go fold a load of laundry. It might be going for a 10-minute walk. It might be finishing one discharge summary. It might be playing a song and dancing to it. Taking a shower, doing a thought download, answering one email, or pulling up a funny comedy video. Or, if you're like my kids, a cute baby animal video.

The point is to choose a discrete action that you can take, and to take it. It can be a task that you choose to complete, like getting the dishes in the dishwasher or finishing a chart note. Or, it can be an activity that you do for a certain amount of time, like going for a walk. The goal is to pivot to doing something other than what your overwhelm is driving you to do.

So, instead of scurrying, about getting snippy, shuffling from this pile to that pile, and not really finishing anything, or fixating on what's wrong, you're directing your focus to doing one single thing.

Now, if you've been listening to this podcast for a while, or if you are really familiar with thought-work, this might sound like heresy. If thoughts cause feelings, and feelings drive actions, how can actions change a feeling or a thought? Well, the human experience is not unidimensional. Sure, you cannot act your way out of overwhelm. But when you do make the decision to do something discrete, it actually does a few things.

Number one, it kills time. And most emotions, they come in waves. Number two, to do a single thing requires you to shift what you're thinking. And when you do that, you're actually interrupting your previous thought pattern that was driving your overwhelm. To do one thing, calls on you to, either consciously or subconsciously, think something like, “One step at a time. I can do this one thing. For now, all that matters is one foot in front of the other. I've got this.” And, when you think a new thought, you open yourself up to feeling a new feeling.

Now the third reason this works is, it helps you narrow your perspective. So instead of taking stock of all the fires that need to be put out, and all the catastrophes around you, you give yourself the chance to hone in on something concrete, in the present moment.

So that is the CAN-DO approach to overwhelm. C, for compassion. A, for awareness. N, for needs. DO, for doing one thing. So how does this actually look in real life, though? So let me paint this picture for you.

You find yourself in a shit-show of a day, and you notice you feel overwhelmed. You pause and you tell yourself, “I'm feeling overwhelmed, right now. Everyone on the planet gets overwhelmed, sometimes. It's really hard to feel this way. It's okay to feel overwhelmed, even though I don't like it.” Then, you pay close attention to what other emotions might surface for you. And then, you remind yourself, “Overwhelm is understandable in these circumstances. And also, it's coming from something I'm thinking. So, nothing outside of me needs to change, for this emotion to shift.

You're going to ask yourself, “Sweet pea, what do I need?” You don't, of course, have to call yourself sweet pea. Your inquiry might sound like, “Dude, what the hell do I need most, right now?” And then, as you listen in and feel in for whatever comes up, your next step is to pick one discrete thing to do, and then go do it. Or, you can of course, pick one single item or mix and match and just do that.

And anytime you notice overwhelm or a really powerful emotion that seems like it happens before the thoughts actually show up... As soon as you notice that, if you can bring in some humor, that is one of the most effective ways to pivot.

I'll share with you something that has been going on in my household lately. My kids, lately, have been really enjoying telling each other to breathe in and to breathe out. But they do it using the voice of… If you've ever seen that animated feature called Ferdinand, they do it in the voice of Lupe.

Lupe is the calming goat, whose voice-over actress is Kate McKinnon. And, Lupe, the calming goat, has a really hilarious way of saying, “In and out.” It's actually been added to my list of ways to quickly pivot from overwhelm, to imagine Lupe, the calming goat. So, if you want to see Lupe, the calming goat, you can click in the show notes and just watch that, and hopefully that will help you bring a little levity to your overwhelm, as well.

So, overwhelm commonly happens in certain circumstances that are unique to each of us, and knowing what the circumstances are, can really help us anticipate potential overwhelm. But once we are in the thick of overwhelm, we can get swept away in an ever-enlarging snowball drama. The way out is always some form of awareness of what we're thinking, and then interrupting the typical trajectory of overwhelm. And to do that, you can use humor, or you can use the CAN-DO technique.

So that is a wrap for today. I hope you will come find me on Instagram at Kristi.Angevine, or in Habits On Purpose Facebook group. And, if you liked what you heard, I would absolutely love it if you took a little bit of time to leave the podcast or review and a rating on iTunes. Thank you so, so much and I will talk to you next time.

If you want to learn more about how to better understand your patterns, stop feeling reactionary, and get back into the proverbial driver’s seat with your habits, you’ll want to join my email list which you can find linked in the show notes. Or, if you go to www.HabitsOnPurpose.com you’ll find it right there.

If you’re serious about taking this work deeper and going from an intellectual understanding to off the page implementation, I offer coaching in two flavors: individual deep-dive coaching with the somatic and cognitive approach, and a small group coaching program. The small group is currently for women physicians only, and comes with CME credits. You can be the first to learn more about the individual or group coaching options by getting on the email list.

Thanks for listening to Habits On Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit www.HabitsOnPurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.

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