how to self-care when you're feeling overwhelmed

how to self-care when you’re feeling overwhelmed using triangulation and animals

Whether it’s the rising cost of living, Covid-19 or the war in Ukraine and other conflicts around the world, many of us are feeling overwhelmed. In the last blog, we talked about how focusing on what’s within your circle of influence helps. But what if what’s within your circle of influence feels overwhelming? In this blog, we talk about the signs of overwhelm, why it is essential to your health and share tips on how to self-care when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

How do you know you’re feeling overwhelmed?

Before we start sherlocking the information the feeling of overwhelm holds, let’s establish how you can identify it and read the signs of overwhelm. Remember sherlocking is about getting your proverbial Sherlock on, getting curious and following the clues that guide you to what you need.

The single phrase that characterises the feeling of overwhelm is ‘too much’. There’s too much to do. There’s too much going on. There’s too much…

When you hear yourself think or say these words, it’s an invitation for you to pay attention, to get curious. These words are like a dashboard indicator in the car, illuminating to alert you that something’s going on.

Signs you’re overwhelmed:

  1. Tightness and contraction in your body, for example, your chest
  2. Sleep is affected and disproportionate so either much more or less than usual
  3. Appetite is affected and disproportionate so either much more or less than usual
  4. You feel alone and are not having nourishing time with people that are dear to you
  5. You’re not having fun (yup – very important clue)
  6. You’re struggling to slow your thinking down
  7. You’re getting stuck in unhelpful thought patterns

What is the feeling of overwhelm about and why you need it?

Feelings are always information. Overwhelm shows up when there’s more for you to experience or do than you have resources for – hence that sense of “too much” in your head. But if you never felt overwhelmed you wouldn’t know your limitations. Continuously going beyond your limitations affects your ability for self-care and eventually becomes detrimental to your health. It’s like you’re always overdrawn on your own resources and at some point the interest will become buckling. So although overwhelm is deeply uncomfortable, it’s actually helpful.

Traingulation of resources, time and tasks

Triangulation of resources, time and tasks

Are you expecting or doing too much?

When you’re expected to do too much in too little time, or you have too much coming at you at any one time, you’ll feel overwhelmed. It’s like with tennis, one ball coming at you is fine, maybe two but too many and you’ll feel overwhelmed.

The expectation could be from others or it could be from yourself. Regardless of where it’s coming from, when the expectation is that you do more than you can, you’ll feel overwhelmed.

Let’s use the three corners of a triangle to demonstrate this:

  • TIME: This corner refers to the date/time when something is due to be delivered or experienced.
  • TASKS: This corner refers to what’s to be done. What’s the size of the task? Are there multiple tasks that make up the overall task?
  • RESOURCES: This corner refers to resources like skills, focus, energy, money, people and the time the people have to deliver this task within the delivery date set.

The purpose of overwhelm is to help you identify when you’ve reached your limit and highlight when something – time, tasks or resources – is out of kilter or skewed.

If it’s a question of straightforward triangulation, why does overwhelm feel so stressful and scary? One of the primary reasons is that you’re attempting to minimise a risk. There’s a fear of something that’s driving the overwhelm. This is the fear of the risk that might happen if you don’t deliver the task on time.

Animals model of cat, dog, wolf and tiger

Animals model of cat, dog, wolf and tiger

Assessing risk using an animal risk model

When faced with any perceived threat, the brain is wired to start by assuming the worst. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. We like to use cats, dogs, wolves and tigers to help illustrate risk, especially the likelihood of something happening and the impact of it happening.

Cats: The likelihood of meeting a cat is quite high and if you were to see one you’d go and stroke it. The impact of that encounter going badly is minimal, it’s a scratch or two.

Dogs: The likelihood of meeting a dog is, again, reasonably high, you’d pause ever so briefly to check how friendly it looks and then engage. The worst impact would be a bite. You might need some stitches and a tetanus jab but it’s unlikely to cause serious harm.

Wolves: The likelihood of meeting a wolf is significantly lower than cats and dogs and the impact if that encounter goes badly is worse. Even if you really like wolves, you wouldn’t approach one without some protective gear or expert advice. However, if you’re well prepared, the encounter may be well worth doing.

Tigers: Finally, the likelihood of meeting a tiger is low but if you did, the impact of that encounter could be life-threatening. Even if you really, really like tigers, you would take great precaution before going anywhere near one to minimise the potentially life-threatening impact if it were to go badly.

What happens in the brain when we face threats? Why the brain starts with the assumption that all threats are life-threatening

Your brain is wired to prioritise your safety and survival, which is why it immediately assumes everything is a tiger before proven otherwise. Now imagine if the brain was wired to assume everything was a cat first. By the time you realise that you’re actually facing a tiger, you could be dead.

Getting curious about whether what you perceive to be a tiger actually is a tiger is therefore key to opening up the possibility of adjusting your triangulation. It’s about opening up that question of the cost of the risk versus the benefit of the activity.

Get curious about what level of risk you’re imagining. If it feels like a tiger, check whether this is actually the case. Once you start to see that risk in more proportionate terms you’ll be calmer and therefore more able to see what’s possible in terms of the three corners of your triangle.

Cost / Benefit Analysis of activities and risks

With cost/benefit analysis, you are working out whether the benefit of what you’re considering outweighs the cost of the risk. If the cost of the risk is greater than the benefit, then it’s time to re-evaluate and see what can be changed to improve this. Can you adjust one or more corners of the triangle? If the benefit outweighs the cost of the risk, it may still be worth reviewing your triangulation in case you can maximise this benefit and minimise the cost.

The practice here is that you take a Proportionate and Appropriate Approach based on what’s going on and what’s most important and helpful in that situation.

What are you making [it] mean?

The final component in understanding your feeling of overwhelm is getting curious about what you are making your feelings of overwhelm mean. The meaning you attach to overwhelm directly impacts how strongly you’re affected by it. When you feel overwhelmed, are you making it mean that you are inadequate? Or that you’re not good enough or somehow lesser? Or are you maybe suffering from imposter syndrome, thinking that other people can do this and so should you? Read more about meaning in our What am I making it mean blog.

How to self-care when you’re feeling overwhelmed? 

Let’s bring this all together now, using the First Aid for Feelings’ ABC technique.

Awareness: Recognise that you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can’t do anything about what’s going on until you become aware that it’s going on. What are the signs that let you know you’re feeling overwhelmed?

Breath and body: Shift your focus to your breath and body. Starting with your breath, do the 5/7 breathing three times. This means breathing in to the count of five and out to the count of seven. Give your breath and lungs a bit of space in between each breath. Once you’ve connected with your breath, expand your focus to the rest of your body. Wiggle your eyebrows and your jaw. Shuffle your shoulders and sitting bones. Finish off by wiggling your toes.

Choice: First question to ask is: “is it helpful?”. The feeling of overwhelm is letting you know you’re attempting to do something beyond your resources so it’s likely the answer is that it’s not helpful to continue as is. The next question is then: “what might be more helpful?”. In order to figure that out you now have the three steps:

  1. Triangulate: do I have the resources to do the task in time? Can I adjust any or all of the corners?
  2. Risk Analysis: What’s the risk I’m attempting to avoid here? Is it a cat, dog, wolf or tiger? Once you’ve identified the risk, check out the cost/benefit analysis.
  3. Check your meaning: Ask yourself what are you making this mean? Listen to the words of your self-talk.

As you answer each question, write down your thoughts and answers so that your eyes can see them. This will help you get a better perspective. Now that you’ve got a map of your overwhelm, you can see what you need in terms of actions and anything else that will help you feel better.

As always, remember it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor

Thor and Denny the dog