Managing overwhelm

Managing overwhelm

The topic of overwhelm and how to manage ourselves through it is both rich and complex. The complexity lies in overwhelm being a double agent; on the one hand a force for positive change, and, on the other, an agent of anxiety and ruin. 

We can be overwhelmed by people’s love as much as we can be overwhelmed by events that leave us feeling hopeless and out of control. Elements of overwhelm carry significant benefits - for example, a body builder attempts to overwhelm his/her existing muscle capacity in order to make the muscle grow bigger and stronger. These moments of discomfort, sometimes beyond our control, sometimes voluntary, serve us even if, at the time, they are not joyful. 

Precision of definition is required. The sort of overwhelm to which I refer is the kernel of legitimate worries, concerns, setbacks which occur almost daily and which our minds do a great job of embellishing to the point where we lose any sense of relativity.  The legitimacy aspect is important; to each of us our concerns are enormous, debilitating and pervasive.

Recent examples in our house include an HMRC letter in tandem with a speeding ticket and the discovery that my beloved 70,000 mile Volvo needs a scarily expensive service.

Add in a dose of vulnerability - overtired, grumpy, a bit hungover or just having one of those off days - and it’s easy to lose perspective. We tend to catastrophise, in the coaching parlance, by exaggerating to the worst possible outcome. A parking fine and mildly incorrect tax return becomes a life of destitution. 
The cruel irony is that part of you demands remedy at the very moment you are least equipped to provide it. 

So, what’s going on and how do we turn overwhelm to our advantage?  
In Dr Steve Peters latest and most excellent book, ‘A Path through the Jungle’, Peters reprises his chimp theory. The chimp is the part of our brain that obsesses about winning, protecting us from danger, and propagating our species. It is hypersensitive to threats and reacts with extreme emotions. Whether it be an efficient tax man, or the reality of a tired car, the chimp’s reaction is to panic and supercharge the situation. 

At this point, we have, as Peters explains, handed over the management of ourselves to our chimp. The signs will be all too familiar to you. A festival of heightened heart rate, sweating, nervous ticks (my hand continually goes to my forehead), mild panic, possible anxiety, a sense you need to fix it right now or everything will go to pot. 

So, what to do? I suggest, odd though it may sound, a dialogue in your head between your human (the rational part of your brain) and your chimp. 
There are 4  simple questions to put to your chimp:

1. What’s really happened here? 

This is aimed at getting your catastrophising out of the dark corner of your mind and exposing it to light. Challenge the chimp to state the worst case, free from judgment or diagnosis. You may even be able to smile at how you/your chimp have gone from a small setback to armageddon. When we say things out loud and hear ourselves, we are able to walk around our words and gain perspective. 

A follow up question to your chimp might be: how much does it think this will matter in a month’s time?

2. When will I be at my best to deal with it? 

Almost always in 12 to 24 hours. Shut down the chimp – tell it you’ll be in touch tomorrow or the next day. Telling your chimp you are going to deal with it but not right now brings mutual calm. 

3. Now we’re unemotional - what’s a plan to deal with the situation? 

This triggers your rational human brain to start thinking logically to drum up solid solutions. Nothing quietens the chimp more than a dose of rational thinking. This can only happen effectively when you have lanced the emotion. Fixing things in an emotional state is like trying to cut your toenails in the dark. 

4. Is something else going on? 

This triggers invaluable self-reflection to make sure that what’s triggered the overwhelm is not part of a bigger issue that needs addressing, perhaps through coaching or another intervention. 

If that’s the case, you can regard the cause of the overwhelm as a positive sign that something fundamental needs to change.

All the best, 


PS The last few tickets are available for the Realisation Festival taking place from 9 - 12 June. Hope to see you there! 

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