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Simple steps to deal with feeling worked-up about overwhelm

RW Rachel V Wall

Overwhelmed. Used to describe a feeling of extreme stress that often leads to fatigue, fluctuations in mood and productivity paralysis for those who experience it. But the experience doesn’t have to be longterm as Sophie Patrick, a psychological practitioner trained in cognitive behavioural therapy has a three-step solution to showing it the door and best of all – it’s refreshingly easy. 

Although the events of this year have increased feelings of overwhelm for many of us, it’s not a new phenomenon and is something Sophie has worked with for a number of years. “Overwhelm is a term used frequently by my patients,” she says. “I see it as an accumulation of stressful external life events that have built up. When that happens there is going to be an internal build-up of emotions, which is often what people mean when they describe being overwhelmed.” 

The feeling is widespread, with a 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation discovering that 74 per cent of Brits had felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope” in the past year. 

According to Good Therapy, typical signs you could be overwhelmed include: Unexplained illness and fatigue, trouble focusing or completing tasks, disproportionate reactions to small situations and withdrawal from friends and family. Its nature, as an all-encompassing inertia, makes solving the problem seem like a task of Goliath proportions. Sophie recommends a simple start – and it’s all about perception. 

When it comes to feeling tense, our mental state can be likened to a cup. But Sophie sees our capacity for stress as more akin to a bucket. She explains: “Imagine a bucket filling with raindrops. These drops represent things such as lack of sleep, difficulty dealing with change, health worries, poor diet and financial anxiety. The heavier it rains the more the bucket will fill up. Once the bucket is at overflow point, overwhelm sets in.”

When it comes to addressing the symptoms of feeling overwhelmed, she advises it’s essential to “pay attention to how you’re feeling”. When it comes to our new friend, the bucket, visualise holes in its bottom. “These holes represent coping mechanisms that ease stress and prevent the bucket from overflowing. These could be activities such as rest and relaxation, talking to others or a therapist, or doing something you love.” Already this is infinitely less stressful than the idea of a cup that overflows (and presumably smashes?) as, instead, we can imagine our troubles draining away under a cloud of self care. 

Managing our personal bucket means regularly connecting with how we feel. She advises:“Ask yourself: ‘How do I recognise that my bucket is becoming full?’ and ‘how will I drain it?’”

Sophie’s three-step technique to tackle that overwhelming feeling:

1Keep a thought diary

“This will help you to keep track of the things going on in your head on a day-to-day basis. Are the thoughts negative or positive? Are these worries hypothetical or practical? For example, do all of your thoughts and worries begin with ‘what if?' or can they be resolved with practical solutions?” 

2Problem-solving techniques

“Write down the problem and come up with as many solutions or steps towards tackling the problem as possible – no matter how silly – and rank them from best to worst. Then carry them out one by one.”

3Progressive muscle relaxation

“This technique teaches you awareness of the tension in your body. Set aside 15 minutes to tense and relax all muscle groups in the body, starting from your forehead down to feet. People who experience overwhelm spend a lot of time thinking and ruminating so, by focusing solely on tensing and relaxing each muscle group, this can help them to break the cycle of worry because the inward focus is reversed to more of an external one.”

In our fast-paced world, full of uncertainty, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed but it doesn’t have to swallow us whole. Recognising your feelings and adding these simple techniques to your mental health toolkit could be all you need if you ever feel your mental bucket is at tipping point. If you are struggling with feelings of overwhelm, there is support available via your GP, NHS mental health helplines and Mind.

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Simple steps to deal with feeling worked-up about overwhelm

RW Rachel V Wall

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