Two weeks ago a client came to me with an all-too-familiar problem: she was completely overwhelmed with all she had to do and couldn’t find a way to change what was going on. “Maria” and her partner were building a startup and were giving it their all. They worked from early in the morning until bedtime. Meals were eaten standing up while filling orders. Weekends were down to half a day. There was no time for friends, and phone calls with family were limited to ten minutes each week. And still she had projects on her To Do list that she simply couldn’t get to.
I started with the obvious: when were they going to hire someone and what could she delegate to that person? Surely someone else could fill orders, I suggested. Oh yes, that was the plan, but they couldn’t hire anyone until she fixed the order forms that only made sense to her and her partner. And she couldn’t fix the forms because she was too busy with everything else. What about farming the forms out to a contractor to fix? Oh, but that would cause her a lot of extra work in the short term to supervise it. Besides, the warehouse was too disorganized for anyone other than Marie and her partner to find anything.
Marie was caught in a Catch-22. She couldn’t take time to hire someone to take over some of her work because she was spending all her time doing that work. There was nothing she could do. At least that was what she was thinking when we started the session. In actuality, there was a lot she could do. However, she couldn’t think of anything at that point. When someone else (like me) pointed out other possibilities, all she could do was think of the reasons why they wouldn’t work.
This is not surprising. When we’re anxious, part of our brain shuts down. At one extreme of anxiety we can go into an actual fight, flight or freeze response in which our entire body prepares to deal with extreme danger and all we can think of is how to protect ourselves. Feeling overwhelmed gets us part way on the road to that extreme response. So the first thing we had to do was bring down Marie’s feeling of being overwhelmed.
Marie and I tapped until her stress and overwhelmed feeling had calmed down to the point where she could access the higher thinking, more creative parts of her brain. Only then were we able to do some brainstorming of ways she could get tasks off her plate. She came back last week and told me that she and her partner had taken part of their half day off to organize the warehouse and that she’d hired a tech-guy who fixed the order form the way they want it. She is planning to start accepting resumes in a couple of weeks.
So what can you do if you are feeling overwhelmed and unable to think of any way to change your situation? The first step, like Marie, is to bring your emotional reaction to all you have to do down to a manageable level. One way to do that is to take a quick break. Do something physical or change your location. Alternatively, you could take some deep, slow breaths all the way down to your navel, leaving your shoulders and chest still — a time-honored relaxation technique. Or do something you already know works for you, like playing catch with the dog or taking a bath or dancing to The Ramones. Don’t rush this step. Until you are more relaxed you won’t be able to even consider new possibilities.
Once you are in a calmer state, go on to the second step: ask someone else what they would do. Make sure this is someone who is not involved in what is making you feel overwhelmed. If Marie had gone to her partner, they would have gone round and round repeating the same discussions they had in the past, getting nowhere. You need a fresh perspective with new ideas.
A colleague, friend, or sibling you respect can fill the bill here. Just be sure that they are someone who can stay calm and not get caught up in your stress and whose opinion you respect. You might also want to tell them that you are looking for ideas, not just a sympathetic ear. Then, when they are giving you their ideas of what they might try in your situation, really listen. Don’t start thinking of all the reasons their suggestions won’t work. Maybe you’ve already considered their first three options and know they won’t, but their fourth one is perfect. Or maybe they have a different way to implement a suggestion that you haven’t thought of. Or maybe what they say will trigger an idea in you that hadn’t occurred to you before. For this to work you need to keep your mind and your ears open.
If you feel like you can’t discuss what is going on with someone else now, you could try imagining what someone you respect would do in your situation. Pick someone you think would really know how to handle it. Maybe it’s your first boss who never got flustered. Maybe it’s your Cousin Emily who has traveled around the world on twelve dollars. Maybe it’s Warren Buffett. It doesn’t have to be someone you know personally. It could even be a fictional character. What would MacGyver do? Then give yourself permission to really explore ways they might handle your overwhelming situation. A little daydreaming might just give you the new perspective you need.
Step Three is to make a plan and follow through with it. You may not be able to fix the problem immediately, but you can make changes that will add up eventually. So even if you can only spare fifteen minutes every week to make a change that will take several months, do it. My guess, though, is if you really allowed yourself to do Steps 1 and 2, you will have an option that will transform your situation much more quickly.
So remember, just because you feel overwhelmed doesn’t mean that you are stuck with the situation you have. Maybe all you need is a little calm and a different perspective.