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  • Writer's pictureEilish Jamieson

Overwhelm - the gift that just keeps giving


What does it conjure up for you?

When I worked in finance, it was synonymous with delivering year-end. As others were winding down and getting in the spirit of things, we would be ramping up and putting in even longer hours to hit targets and complete plan.

Work, home, and social pressures at this time of year can easily lead to OVERWHELM.

Sound familiar?

It's a common story. But it is possible to control your response to stress by understanding it better.

Recognise what is in your sphere of control and what isn't

Overwhelm is what we feel when we have too much to do and too little time to do it in. Given that many are already working long hours, the answer is rarely to spend more time in the office.

Write a list of everything that you have to do - a full dump of what you have on your mind that needs to get done, from the Christmas shopping through to those last minute reports. Then draw two circles - one inside of the other. If a task is something that you are responsible for, and only you can do, put it inside the smaller circle. If it is something that you are responsible for, but someone else could do, put it inside the outer circle. If you are not responsible for it then it shouldn't be in your circles at all. The aim is to identify the list that is really your responsibility and requires an action from you.

Our circle of control is much smaller than we realise.

Reframe how you are thinking about stress - learn to identify the signs (good and bad). Not all stress is bad.

Stress tends to be thought of as negative, but not all stress is bad for us. 'Good stress', or what psychologists refer to as 'eustress', is the type of stress we feel when we feel excited. Our pulse quickens and our hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear. There are many triggers for this good stress, and it keeps us feeling alive and excited about life.

Chronic stress however is a form of bad stress. It occurs when we repeatedly face stressors that take a heavy toll and feel inescapable. A stressful job or an unhappy home life can bring chronic stress. Because our bodies aren't designed for chronic stress, we can face negative health effects (both physical and emotional) if we deal with chronic stress for an extended period of time.

It is important that we understand how stress manifests itself within us as it is not the same for everyone. Using 'good stress' to your advantage, can help you achieve focus and flow in your work. However, it is important to recognise that this can also easily shift into 'bad stress' if the mental load that you are juggling is consistently high.

Reframing how we see stress is a really effective way of preventing that shift from occurring. If you don't perceive something as a threat, there is generally no threat-based stress response. If you reframe and perceive something as a challenge instead, the fear you would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least resolve.

Understand the root-cause of your response - when you understand why, it becomes easier to build resilience.

If I asked you how you respond to a perceived threat, you may be unsure. What type of threat you might ask? Will it physically harm me? Am I able to defend myself?

In fact our human biology is designed to respond to a perceived threat in one of three ways - fight, flight or freeze. Our responses are likely to emotional (anxiety, depression, increased positivity), behavioural (addiction, aggression, insomnia, withdrawal), or physical (headaches, muscle aches, health issues or body damage) or some combination of these.

In my own case when I was under significant stress in my corporate career, my response was to reign in control by taking on as much of the workload as possible. On the outside, I looked the picture of calm and positivity, but my behaviour told a different story - I was in fear of losing control and working all hours to maintain it. Eventually, after operating in this mode for way too long, my blood pressure readings were through the roof and I ended up on medication.

Our responses to stress are derived from our past experiences, upbringing and genetics. Men and women will respond differently too. An influential study published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review reported that, due to higher levels of oxytocin released during stress, women are more likely to deal with stress by 'tending and befriending' - that is, nurturing those around them and reaching out to others. Men, on the other hand, with smaller amounts of oxytocin, lean toward the fight or flight response when it comes to stress - either bottling it up and escaping, or fighting back.

Understanding the drivers behind your responses will help you identify the signals when they start to creep in.

Lastly, don’t lose sight of the important stuff - perspective is a great balancer 🎄

In the heat of the moment, delivering a project, a new deal, meeting targets or deadlines, it can be easy to lose perspective. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is more important during these times than ever - tomorrow is another day and relationships extend beyond the deadline. Asking yourself 'what is the worst that could happen if we don't do xyz'. Considering what is going on in the other persons shoes, can help you maintain perspective when the pressure is coming form above, or the team aren't delivery how you would like.

Whether Christmas or any other time of the year, don't let overwhelm cause you to lose sight of the important stuff.

P.S. Many of my clients experience some level of stress in their life as a result of their role or life circumstances. Coaching, whilst beneficial for anyone needing to find space to rebalance their mental load, is particularly beneficial for women whose natural response is to seek out support from others in a time of stress. However, I should acknowledge that when a client presents to me with chronic levels of a stress which I believe would be better addressed through a stress management plan, then I will recommend that they first meet with their GP.


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