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Feeling Overwhelmed

Clients often complain that they feel overwhelmed without really knowing what the word means. What do you actually mean when you say you’re “overwhelmed? More importantly, what can you do to feel better or change the situation?

According to the World Book Dictionary, “overwhelm” is a verb that means, 1. “to overcome completely, to crush, 2. to cover completely, as a flood would; 3. to help, treat, or address with an excessive amount of anything.” When clients say they feel overwhelmed, they’re generally referring to the first definition—“overcome completely” or “crushed”—but nothing of the sort is going on. They’re not actually “overcome,” not “crushed.” In fact, they’re still functioning, still putting one food in front of the other, alive and kicking. In the language of definition #2, they’re still keeping their heads above water. In short, “feeling overwhelmed” is an internal perception, not external reality.

When you say you’re “overwhelmed,” what you really mean is that you’re stressed, harried, busy, overworked, overscheduled, anxious, under the gun, or fear you won’t get done all you wish to do. You may not realize that everyone feels this way occasionally, and that the feeling doesn’t mean you are drowning or will be crushed. You may feel you have an excessive amount to do and firmly believe it, but in reality, you’re not going under. You’re simply feeling pressured.

In this situation, the worst thing you can do is repeatedly say, “I’m overwhelmed.” Tell me, how does that help you feel better? Sure, acknowledge the pressure. But by repeating that you feel as if you’re being overcome, you actually become more stressed. Instead, speak calmly to yourself and you’ll start to relax. Here are some phrases you can say: I’m fine, I’m doing the best I can, I’m managing, this all will be over soon, I’m going to take some time to relax in a bit, this is not a picnic but I’m doing okay with it. Well, you get the idea. To repeat, the last thing you want to do is stoke the fires of stress. The goal is to do the opposite: to talk yourself down from your frantic feelings.

Of course, you’ll also help yourself by changing your life or lifestyle to reduce feelings of stress. Remember, stress is only a perception. Just because you have a great deal to do, doesn’t mean that you must feel overwhelmed. Try to figure out where this perception originated, including how your parents handled stress and what they said and felt about it. Practice believing you can manage your life, and you will begin to feel that you can. Better yet, eradicate the word “overwhelmed” from your vocabulary.