The weekend is just around the corner, and like everyone, I always look forward to the weekend. However, today I woke up feeling a little overwhelmed and it got me thinking of the different mindsets that the weekend can put you in. On opposite sides of the coin you have, “The weekend’s coming so I can take it down a notch and relax,” and, “Oh my god, it’s the end of the week! What have I done? What have I not done?” And that can cause feelings of overwhelm.
Overwhelm is an interesting thing. It gets you stuck. It can firmly plant your feet in the concrete. When you get overwhelmed, it’s often because you can't separate the many layers of stuff that are in your head. They all seem to sit on top of each other so that there’s no way to delineate and pull things out into manageable pieces.
While this sense of overwhelm is true for all people, it’s certainly more prevalent and problematic if you have ADHD. Like many aspects of the condition, it’s a matter of degrees. ADHD doesn’t create circumstances all that different from those experienced by most people at some point or another, but it’s a matter of intensity, a matter of frequency and a matter of the extent to which they impact your life.
When this sense of overwhelm sets in, the inclination is to just drive, drive, drive and push through it. We’ve been taught that when there’s a lot to do, we have to do a lot. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes it pays to let your foot off the gas, and give yourself a chance to recharge. You can do this by finding a diversion or distraction. Yes, I know that distraction for people with ADHD can be problematic, but sometimes it can be your friend.
Did you know that when you feel stressed by the multiple layers of stuff in your head, that there may actually be parts of your brain that you are unable to access? I won’t get too much into the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the biology of it all right now, but suffice to say that different parts of your brain serve different functions. The part of your brain that is responsible for survival in times of extreme stress is called the amygdala, and it's function is fairly simple. In fact, it can be summed up with three words... fight, flight or freeze.
In those moments of overwhelm and intense stress, that’s the part of the brain that takes over and keeps us alive. It’s very black and white in its decision making; there’s not a lot of room for nuance, logic or reason when it comes to the amygdala. Then there’s a part of your brain that’s responsible for executive function or goal driven, reasoned behaviour. It's called the prefrontal cortex and it is much better equipped to handle multiple options of choice and ambiguity.
One effective way to engage the part of your brain that is responsible for reasoning when your amygdala is taking over is to relax and find a diversion. As opposed to applying more pressure and adding to the chaos, what you need to reengage the prefrontal cortex is calm and relaxation. You might set yourself up an exercise and make a list of 20 great things that are happening in your life; or, you can take a half hour and read for pleasure, watch TV or go for a walk. You can call up a friend and chat about something entirely unrelated to the stressful situation or engage in something creative. All of these things can help re-engage the part of your brain that you need when your are feeling overwhelmed.
You’ll find that the results from applying these diversions are amazing! I’ve walked away from situations where I’ve been completely overwhelmed and could not cope with whatever is in front of me at that moment. And lo and behold, when I came back to it the next day, for some reason, the situation looked completely different. It was still the same problem as yesterday but I was able to perceive it differently because I was able to access a part of my brain that I wasn’t able to access before.
When you’re feeling that sense of overwhelm and panic well up, always remember that you’ve been here before and that, no matter how overwhelmed you’ve felt, you’ve always gotten past it. I don’t mean to minimize your experience. The feeling of overwhelm can hang around for quite a while. But generally speaking, if we remove ourselves from the circumstance and arrange to go back to it when we’re in a calmer frame of mind, we usually find ourselves in a better place.
Breathe, pause, and take some time. Find a diversion! Go run that errand you’ve been meaning to run. Pivot to another activity completely unrelated to all of the projects that are overwhelming you. Even when you’re in a work situation and you feel like you can’t pivot or abandon a piece of work, know that it will serve you, your employer and the organization better if you do.
Despite popular thinking, we are not, by nature, great multi-taskers. We think we are, but we’re not. Even when we think we’re multitasking, we’re still only doing one thing at a time. We may do a lot of things one at a time in quick succession, but multi-tasking is a myth.
So, take a breath. Take your foot off the gas. Everything will still be there when you come back to it. Nothing is that urgent. You owe it to yourself.