You need your overwhelm (Believe it or not!)

“I am simply overwhelmed….”  


My client continues with her story, relating all of the activities in her day: how she tries to work through her own numerous client issues, the larger leadership responsibilities that she is carrying within her organization, fitting in the cross-country business travel and smaller personal appointments that also need to occur while trying to maintain an semblance of focus. While we work through her schedule and the larger issues of what she really wants to accomplish, what she certainly does not want to celebrate is her overwhelm . . . but of course that is exactly where the conversation goes.

Overwhelm is a powerful emotional warning sign…like a warning shot “across the bow.” This phrase has its origins in the 18th century maritime world, where it indicated a recognition that a shot could be fired toward any ship that was not in its home waters and whose nationality needed to be determined. Within our own bodies, the feeling of overwhelm represents our need to stop and identify what it is in our lives that has snuck into our home waters. An indication that there is something that needs to be addressed. Without such warning, we would have no trigger to help us recognize when we need to pause in our lives and examine what is going on.  


Brain & body working together

In Western society, our brain is supreme. We often see our body as merely the vessel that carries our 3 pounds of brain mass around in the world, ignoring the rest of relationship between body and brain. In so doing, we ignore the truths—the messages that our body sends us—because it isn’t using the same language that our thoughts based in either fear or fantasy do. As a result, a disconnect occurs between our mind and our body.

Allowing our mind to constantly lead without recognizing the relationship with the body puts us in automatic pilot. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts and Executive Director at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, goes further with this idea, “When we are on automatic pilot, trying to get someplace else all the time without being attentive to where we already are, we can leave a wake of disaster behind us in terms of our own health and wellbeing, because we’re not listening to the body. We’re not paying attention to its messages; we’re not even in our bodies much of the time.”

Overwhelm offers each of us the opportunity to step back and take another look at what’s going on in our lives. In so doing, we can find ourselves looking for another way forward. The beauty is in the recognition that the current way is not working. Listening to the signs and understanding what they’re trying to tell us is a major first step in eliminating the feeling of overwhelm. The trick is to pay attention to what is being offered by the awareness of the body and the messaging provided in the emotional pain: to turn in another direction.  


What to do with the message

The understanding of what the pain is trying to tell us can be found while listening to your body compass, mining our interconnection of body and mind found in yoga and meditation, and/or using other mindfulness techniques to find a deeper understanding of your thoughts.

Here are some more ideas to help you begin to unpack the overwhelm, as my client was able to do: 

  1. Give space to your sense of overwhelm. Listen to what it’s trying to tell you and allow it to speak to where the “enemy ships” are sneaking into your life. Use journaling to get at the specifics.

  2. Find a helpful metaphor to name the overall situation, such as a ball of mixed threads, that simply needs to be loosened for you to figure out where the knots are. Begin to pull it apart to see what you want to keep in your life, how it can be kept without knotting back up again, and what needs to be tossed away.

  3. Take on your Eagle Vision for a big picture view of your life. Where do you need to create “buffers”? Depending on the person, buffers can serve a number of different functions: from space between projects, issues, or clients to collect oneself, center and refocus, to space for the likely spillover from known stressful situations or clients.

  4. Reclaim the power to your No & your Yes! Knowing yourself asks that you celebrate your purpose and values in this world by standing true to them. Saying NO not only opens you to the “yeses” in your life but leaves the door available to others to step forward.
        Saying “YES” to what feels right but a little scary gives you the opportunity to walk tall in your life. So how do you know the difference between what feels right but a little scary and what feels right and feels terrifying? It is much like being up on the high dive. Are you looking at a filled pool of clean, refreshing water or is it a pool filled with molten lava? You can see and feel the difference!

Allow your life to be the journey that it is.  Breathe that in.   

Allow yourself to awaken to the possibilities that awareness offers. Celebrate the overwhelm and listen to its message . . . it may be telling you it is time for a different answer.