Getting Unstuck: Four ways to overcome overwhelm

By Thursday morning this week I found myself in a state of overwhelm. You know, that feeling of paralysis, when you don’t know what to do first. Everything feels like a priority.

The feeling of impotence had me in a major funk. I checked my calendar: manageable. I reviewed my to-do list: nothing I couldn’t handle. So, why was I stuck?

I couldn’t identify exactly what had put me there. But the truth is, how I got into this funk was not nearly as important as how I would get myself out.

Everyone finds themselves in a state of overwhelm from time to time. The stressors of daily life are real and constant. Our phones and computers constantly clamber for our attention. Our jobs demand more, faster, better. The daily news provides an ever-present stream of doom and gloom.

It’s a wonder we get anything done!

A little science:

Remember our friend the amygdala? In last week’s blog we learned about its relationship to fear. The amygdala (sometimes referred to as the primitive brain) is designed to keep us safe.

Because it receives messages milliseconds prior to the thinking brain, the amygdala can trigger emotions and put us on notice before the rational brain has a chance to kick in and analyze the situation.

In his 1996 bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack”. Hijack occurs when the amygdala interprets a stimulus or experience as potentially harmful or dangerous. The amygdala’s perception that this is a fight, flight, or freeze situation hijacks our mind.

deer-headlight-618x264-e1497539768463When we find ourselves stuck, seemingly unable to taking action, we are in freeze mode, not unlike a deer in the headlights. But fear not! It won’t last!

Fortunately for us, emotions are temporary. Fear, joy, anger, hurt, sadness; they all fade with time. Amygdala hijack is also temporary.

Getting unstuck

Being able to recognize that you are in a hijacked state is the first step in working through overwhelm. Being stuck can be extremely frustrating. It just doesn’t feel good! It’s caused by anxiety, and it causes more anxiety. This can create a vicious circle that keeps us stuck for a longer period of time.

However, if you’re willing to work within its limitations, the outcomes of this frozen state can have some unexpected benefits.

So I encourage you to: accept that sometimes you’ll be hijacked; remember that it’s only temporary; and learn to look for the silver lining.

Here are four things that you might try next time you feel stuck and want to get back on track.

  1. Do what’s in front of you. Recognize that you’ve felt this way before and that eventually it will pass. Do something physical. Research shows that physical activity has the power to refresh and redirect the brain.

It doesn’t have to be your highest priority (which you haven’t been able to identify anyway). Taking action is always better than doing nothing.

I think of this as surrender. Not in the sense of giving up, but in the spirit of accepting what is, and agreeing to work within those parameters.

Wash the car, do some laundry, pull some weeds in the garden. These are all things that need to be done anyway, and they don’t require a lot of brainpower. Frequently I find that while I’m doing simple tasks my mind is ruminating, working behind the scenes; a solution comes to me when I stop trying so hard. Or, at a minimum, I find new energy to tackle the very thing that has me stuck.

This Thursday morning, for example, I took myself out to coffee, got a haircut, and went to the gym. In the process I did some networking, got a lead on two potential clients, and got a workout. (Pretty nice silver lining!)

Then I was ready to get back to work. It was still a bit of a struggle, but I was in a better frame of mind.

  1. Identify the source. Tracking back to the source of your angst can take away its power, and consequently its hold on you. What was the trigger that derailed your day? Remember, being stuck can frequently be tracked back to fear.

Your assistant resigned. How will you ever get all your work done? – Fear of failure.

Your boss asked you for a report you haven’t finished. – Fear of looking bad.

You’ve been asked to demonstrate the new system functionality but you’ve had no time to prepare. – Fear of making a mistake. Fear of looking incompetent.

Remember, most of what we fear never happens. Even when it does, it’s rarely as bad as we imagined. Take a deep breath and move forward. 

  1. Phone a friend/mentor/coach. Discuss your situation with a trusted friend or mentor. Sometimes just talking it through makes the situation so much clearer. They may show you options you weren’t able to see in your hijacked state. They may even offer to help. 
  1. Use a visual progress tracker. If you’re a visual learner like I am, this method will show you that you are actually making progress. Write each task on a sticky note. On a whiteboard or large piece of paper make two columns. As tasks are completed, move them from the “queue” column to the “completed” column.

Maybe you’re not really stuck. Maybe you’re just being too hard on yourself or have set your expectations too high. When I have a lot on my list, seeing my accomplishments move to the completed column helps me stay calm and productive.

What are your methods for getting unstuck? How do you overcome overwhelm? Please post a comment to let us know.

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