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How to stop being overwhelmed

Overwhelm: how it nearly ended my career before it even began and how I overcame it

Overwhelm can be a very big part of peoples INNER STRUGGLES. In my coaching, I find that many people feel overwhelmed and have trouble dealing with all the things that they have to face each day.

Overwhelm can also be a big part of people’s financial struggles, and so I wrote about it in my book “Overcoming Financial Stress: how to conquer your financial fears and create a better future” and so the story that I’m about to tell you comes from that book. I thought, just for something different, I would read an extract from this book.

Another message that this story contains will certainly help you with your overwhelm, but if you find that it is a persistent problem, a really persistent problem, that might take a little bit more work and so it might be better dealt with on a one-on-one basis. So, if that’s the case, let’s have a chat about it and we’ll help you fix it up for yourself.

So, what is overwhelm? Well overwhelm occurs when the demands of the situation are greater than our perceived resources: we feel overwhelmed because we don’t think we’ve got enough resources to deal that the situation demands.

By resources, I mean energy, emotional strength, inner strength, powers of concentration etc., all the things that might be required to deal with a situation.

And I use the word ‘perceived ‘ deliberately because sometimes we have resources that we don’t think about, that we don’t realise that we have got. This is because we  generally have much more in the way of resources than we believe. And so, once we become aware of these greater resources, the sense of overwhelm can be reduced.

To illustrate the concept of overwhelm, I use the analogy of a production line. Imagine your job on the production line is to screw tops on jars after the jars have been filled with the product. If the conveyor belt on the production line is going at the right speed, you’re going to be able to put to the caps on the jars as required and keep up with the demands of the machine.

If the machine goes too slowly, you’re probably going to get a bit bored, lose concentration and probably mess up the job.

If the machine goes too fast, of course, you won’t be able to get the caps on. Our You’ll probably knock some of the jars off the production line and before you know it, there will be a catastrophe. You certainly won’t get the job done.

The machine or the conveyor belt going to fast is the equivalent of being overwhelmed: you simply can’t keep up with them the demands of the task at hand.

So, I want to tell you a story that I used to illustrate overwhelm and how I overcame it in my own life. It goes back to when I was at university when I was doing an undergraduate degree in civil engineering.

And so, now referring to my book, I was in third year of my undergraduate civil engineering degree. I had been suffering ill-health for some years following a motor accident. However, I was finally feeling really great, and the last thing I really wanted to do was spend my time sitting behind books, studying. I hope you can identify with that. So, I let my hair down, skipped lectures and generally had a good time. It was really great to feel good again after several years of ill-health.

The engineering degree that I was doing was a very intensive course and had about thirty-four hours of lectures, practical classes and design classes each week, with an enormous amount of material to be handed in regularly. I somehow managed to scrape through all the work that had to be submitted each week but hadn’t done all the necessary study for the exams.

Finally, however, with the end of the year exams approaching, I had to face up to the fact that things were getting pretty serious. At that time, we only had one examination period each year and, with this looming up in front of me, I suddenly realised that I had too much to learn for the time remaining.

So, I would sit down each night trying to study, all the time filled with fear and worry about failing. To fail would have been a tragedy because I’d done well in the previous two years, having never failed a subject, and had my heart set on being a structural engineer, a branch of civil engineering.

I dreamt of designing major bridges and other structures that would benefit many thousands of people every day, structures that would survive long after I’d gone. I felt passionate about the thought of designing bridges, particularly, as I had noticed that a lot of calendars featuring cities always showed the bridges associated with those cities. I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to say I designed some of those bridges.

However, when I tried to study, my worry became so intense that I couldn’t concentrate on the material that I was studying. I’d find my mind wondering about what I would do if I failed, about the indignity of it all, about the costs involved and so on, thinking about everything but the task at hand.

Maybe you can identify with that, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now.

Weeks went by and I made very little progress as my fear and worry were so great. Eventually, after weeks of useless attempts to study, I woke to discover that there were really only six weeks left until the first exam. It was only through the desperation of my position that I came to a major realisation: the realisation that I couldn’t possibly expect the pass exams on only six weeks work. After all, there were eleven three-hour exams to be held over a period of twenty-two days. With six weeks to go, I had less than half a week to prepare for each exam, a whole year’s worth of material.

So eventually facing up to that, I painfully decided that I could no longer worry about whether I would fail or not. I concluded that it was actually a foregone conclusion that I’d fail and that the only unknown was just by how much I would fail.

Confronted by this shocking realisation, I decided to change my goal. Instead of aiming to pass, which I didn’t believe was possible under the circumstances, I set the objective of failing by as little as possible. So, each time I sat down to study, every time my fears of failing popped into my mind, I reminded myself that this was a foregone conclusion and that my goal was simply to fail by as little as possible.

I also reminded myself that I was doing my best in a difficult situation and that was all I could do. If this was not good enough, well, so be it.

Amazingly, this change of perspective took the pressure off me, and I found that I then become able to relax a lot more and so was able to study much more effectively.

I also decided that I didn’t want to feel fresh and bright as a button during university vacation period that would follow the exams as I felt I hadn’t really earned this because I’d had my holiday during the year. So as a result, I decided to allow myself only 4½ hours sleep each night and that I would study in every spare minute available to me, allowing minimal time to the basic tasks of life. I knew that working like this would leave me feeling pretty exhausted when the exams were over, but felt that this is what I actually deserved under the circumstances.

Somehow was able to stick to this tough regime for the whole nine weeks, including exam period, principally because I was far more relaxed, having taken the pressure off myself by no longer striving to pass, simply striving to fail by as little as possible.

When the exam period arrived, I only allowed myself one hour from the completion of an exam before I was back studying for the next exam. Once each exam was over, I pushed that subject completely out of my mind so I could move onto the next one, allowing no time for reflection on how I went. If I wondered about this at all, I would remind myself that I probably failed and that I was only trying to fail by as little as possible.

Naturally my expectations were low when the exam results were finally posted. However, to my utter amazement I ended up doing far better than I could have ever imagined under the circumstances. I passed every subject, even getting honours in a few of them.

By reframing my situation, I had taken the pressure off and ended up achieving a goal that I considered way beyond my reach. It was absolutely astounding, and I was immensely grateful to the universe for helping me through this crisis.

Incidentally, I ended up graduating at the end of fourth year with honours and to go on to be largely responsible for the design of some major award-winning bridges and other structures. So despite the challenges that I faced in my third year, my dreams actually did come true.

My major problem had been, of course, that every time I sat down to study I would dwell on the big picture of whether I passed or failed, instead of focusing on the task at hand. I was spending all my time worrying about the outcome and insufficient time on the actions required to achieve the outcome. This naturally created a sense of overwhelm.

Does this sound at all familiar to you?

Overwhelm occurs when we are chunking too high. ‘Chunking’ refers to the amount of information, the level of detail we are considering. For example, if I chunk up from motorcar, I might be talking about transport systems, I’m becoming more general. If I chunk down, I might be talking about a steering wheel, I’m becoming more specific.

So, to chunk down is to consider greater specificity, in particular to focus on the task at hand.

So ask yourself “what can be done to improve my situation, this week, this day, this hour, this minute?” If there is something that can be done, focus all your attention on it. If nothing can be done, focus all your attention on whatever else you’re doing, giving your mind a rest from your worries and anxieties.

Of course,  this lesson was invaluable to me many years later when I was facing my financial challenges and it stood me in good stead throughout my life and helped me deal with overwhelm many, many times.

In summary, by resetting my goal I was able to reframe my situation and take some of the pressure off myself. This then made it much easier for me to chunk down and focus simply on the work in front of me, rather than dwelling on the big picture of how I was going in my course.

So there were a number of valuable lessons here, which you might find helpful.

This I hope you find this useful. As I said, if you find that your problems are persisting, maybe they’re better dealt with in a one-on-one coaching session, by having a chat. If this, is so certainly feel free to contact me.

Thank you.

Edited transcript

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