I want to start by stopping you.
Richard Bandler founder of NLP talks about ‘Pattern Interrupt’
It may sound odd or even ridiculous to start a post on overwhelm with the idea of stopping. I can imagine a few readers saying ‘but that’s what I have already done! I have stopped, that’s the problem! What I want, is to start again!’
I understand, but what I’m betting is that although it may seem like your ability to get clear on where you are going has stopped, your decision making may have slowed or come to a complete stop, your mind has not.
Your mind is so active it is exhausted. It has been churning over and over all the things that need to be done, that could be done, that ought to be done, it has been shouting at you, berating you, blaming you and generally never, ever shutting up. It is on overtime, it’s tired, it has become so exhausted with the tangled web of possible directions and decisions that it has stopped being able to help.
We need to allow it to have a break, to stop a while and clear some space for new thinking to come through. When a bin is full, you don’t keep chucking in the rubbish until it overflows all over the kitchen floor (at least not for long anyway!), you get a new bin liner, you empty the bin and you start afresh. The brain needs emptying on a regular basis to create the space for all the new thoughts you are going to fill it with.
When we are stress, overwhelmed, anxious or depressed we have metaphorically reached a point where the rubbish is spilling all over the kitchen floor.
This metaphor has limits of course, I’m not saying that everything we put into our brains is rubbish – although there is something to be said for sorting through the trash now and again and thinking about what we want to keep and what can be thrown away for good.
The thing about the mind going over and over things is that it gets to a point where it will be forced to stop unless we help it to slow down and clear. It will eventually go into a forced shut down and that’s when we go from endless distractions to just sitting and staring.
Where are you right now on the brain crash scale? Is your mind in a state of leaping from one thing to the next, forgetfulness, panic, headless chicken mode? Or has it gone full out into sit on the sofa and do nothing? Wherever you are right now, your brain is giving you a clear message – “stop this now or I will stop it for you”.
Most of our brain crashes result from having so many or so few perceived options that we go into ambivalence. Having too many choices brings us to a standstill because they all seem like they could be good options, they could all be the ‘right’ road to take. But how do you know? What if one of them is the ‘wrong’ road? How do you make the decision?
The same results when we have too little options, we go into a sort of desperation mode. Do we choose to keep things the same, where they are at least safe and known or do we take a leap into the unknown where we may crash and burn? What would happen then? Especially if we have responsibilities and people who rely on us, would it be selfish to go for something different? To create uncertainty and possible hardship just so that we can be happier (perhaps). What if it doesn’t work out? We have let go of everything that was certain and faced the fire only to get burned ourselves and have burned everyone we love in the process.
Headless Chicken mode
When we are in headless chicken mode we are charging from one thing to the next, nothing is ever satisfactorily completed, things are forgotten, appointments are missed, work goes unfinished, stress permeates everything that you think, say and do. You are the king or queen of ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘I can’t cope’ and it is the first thing you think whenever another task is placed before you.
It seems like no one understands the strain that you are under and yet you feel guilty too because you know that you should really be able to get more done and for things not to be as hectic as they are, you just don’t even have the breathing space to get organized. So you plough on, the days get filled with more and more stuff, your head stops you sleeping because you have so much you need to run over and consider.
Your relationships may be struggling too because you are so distracted with your to-do list and your growing list of ‘things not done’ that you can’t take the time out to relax with them, to really listen to them (your head is too full of your own stuff to be able to fit in theirs too), to make love to them or to understand and fufill their needs.
Your children are given the minimum interaction, you try to be there for them, to show that you are listening but really you are just going through the motions. Really you are desperate to get back to what you were doing, to thinking about what to do next, to come up with solutions, ideas and strategies.
Your social life is there but it is again, a bit of a pain to engage with it because there is so much you should be doing. When you do go out you want to numb your chattering, overworked mind and the best way to do that is to drink too much, feel like crap the next day and set yourself even further back on the path to making things happen.
It’s not that you want to live like this, you just can’t see another way at the moment. You don’t have time to smell the roses, to go to that exercise class, to do all the things that you suspect might help if only people would understand that you DON’T HAVE TIME.
Only you know you DO have time, you know that if someone would just show you how to relax and reorder things in a different way, time would appear and things would go well. Knowing that there is time and finding that time are two different and conflicting concepts that can perpetuate headless chicken mode for as long as your mind can take it.
What happens when the headless chicken can’t take it anymore?
Sofa Slump Mode
When the Headless Chicken has done all the running around in circles that it can do, it inevitably, at some point gets so exhausted that it needs to stop. It can become the Sofa Slump.
The sofa slump is not the same as the normal time out to watch your favourite programme, to have dinner or just to chill out listening to music for a while. The sofa slump is far more insidious.
The Sofa Slump comes when your mind has had enough and it needs to think of nothing for a while. Maybe a day, several days, sometimes longer – which is when depression can set in. It needs to be numb for a while, it is full, the kitchen floor is covered in the unemptied trash that has been filling your brain and it can’t bear to look at it any longer. It simply shuts off.
The Sofa Slump is not somewhere you want to stay for long but it is enticing, it calls to you it invites you to rest and to stay rested because that feels a bit better than Headless Chicken mode at least.
The Sofa Slump is devoid of motivation, of purpose, of meaning. It is empty and sometimes, that’s exactly what your mind has been seeking – space, numbness, emptiness and a lack of caring about what is going on around you.
There is no judgement in any of this, your mind has taken itself into a place that it needed and knowing what got you there is a great place to be able to start stopping. The Sofa Slump was just an inevitable reaction to everything the mind had to cope with, it was full, it was overflowing, it needed to stop.
Aim, Fire, miss, retreat
Many small businesses owners will recognize this pattern, they have an idea, they fire it out into the world, it misses the mark in some way – perhaps there was little or no response, and feeling defeated, you retreat into feeling a failure and wait for the next aim to come along so that maybe this time you can hit the target.
The mind is uneasy with this approach, it feels chaotic and exhausting. It keeps coming up with new things but none of them are ever continued long enough for it to move into a longer term pattern of focused action. It is not so different from Headless Chicken, apart from the fact that it had a clear aim in the first place.
So how do we move beyond these states of overwhelm and back into action again?
Here are my top five tips:
Stop doing what you always do
Our brains do whatever it normally does when we go into overwhelm because that’s what it knows best. So we want to trick the brain a little and confuse it so it starts to see things differently. The pattern interrupt that I spoke about earlier is really helpful here. Do something different to normal. If you normally get overwhelmed and stop what you are working on to distract yourself a while with a coffee or food or a walk…try pushing through for another 60 seconds instead, then another 60 seconds…anything that interrupts the normal pattern.
Work with a Coach or Therapist
Yes I would say that..but I didn’t choose this profession because I thought it would be a great scam to con people out of their money, It actually does help to have someone who is there with you as you work to go beyond your normal patterns of behaviour, that brain is a tricky blighter – it will want to snap back to it’s habits asap and sometimes you won’t even know it has happened unless there is someone who knows these things happen and what to do about it.
Write it all down
What is in your head can be eased by the act of writing it down. Get out all the things you have to get done, the project ideas you have, the people you need to call in one massive big list, scribble it at first if you need to but get it down. Then go through and sort this into more coherent plans and task lists and project ideas. If you are struggling to sort the information in your head then don’t do it in your head…do it on paper, on an excel spreadsheet, on a voice message to yourself, in a meeting with your assistant etc.
Create a future you
Imagine in your mind what another version of you looks like. This is the version of you who is not overwhelmed, who is taking consistent action, who is organised and focused. Imagine how this version stands, what they think, what they do etc. Make sure this is a version of yourself that you really want to become (it’s no good if you create an image of yourself that you are irritated by for example). Then write a couple of sentences that describe this version and stick it up somewhere. Look at it often and ask yourself whether your current thoughts, feelings and actions are moving you towards this version of yourself or away from it – if you are going away from the version of you who is not overwhelmed, change what you are thinking, or doing and this will shift the feeling.
Now some people I know find this incredibly difficult and assume it involves sitting with zero thoughts for hours on end. My method of meditation involves a quick ten min walk (longer if I can). I either have a hypnotic type of repetition of a phrase going through my head in time with my steps, something like ‘one step ahead, double the strength’ or ‘thank you for this moment right now’ etc. Or, I walk with a question in my head and then wait for the ideas on possible answers to flow. Easy, effective and active.
Of course if you want to get a handle on this quickly you can always tell me a bit more about what is going on for you on my straightforward assessment form and we can have a chat about it in a FREE 30 min session so you can get moving again…here is the form link…there’s nothing to lose (apart from your email address…but I keep that safe and confidential). Link to the assessment form