Overwhelm is pretty much THE most common HSP complaint, and it’s also the fuzziest one. Below are 7 questions to help you pinpoint what is going on, so that getting help or simply addressing the overwhelm on your own is easier.
Question 1: What does overwhelm mean?
- Does it mean that you cry every night and have a lot of grief?
- Does it mean that you are angry and frustrated and trying to hold it in?
- Does it mean you have no time to yourself and constantly feel stressed?
- Does it mean you’re afraid?
- Are you feeling uninspired and unhappy with your life?
Overwhelm is an umbrella term. The first step in getting clarity requires specifying what that overwhelm actually consists of. When you’re clear, start bringing that clarity into your self-talk. So instead of telling yourself “Oh, I am so overwhelmed!” say what is really going on, e.g.: “I am so angry and frustrated about X and I need to find a solution!”
Overwhelm-speak is vague and fuzzy and it doesn’t put your brain into trouble-shooting mode. So the more specific you can be about what is actually going on, the easier it will be to figure out a long-term solution.
Question 2: How long has this overwhelm been going on, and what have you tried so far?
One of the biggest reasons people tend to stay stuck is because they hold on to a combination of “things are miserable” + “I’ve tried everything there is to try, there is no solution for me”. It’s a deadly combination.
To get things to change, you need to acknowledge that if this has been going on for a while, and nothing you tried has helped, then you don’t have all the answers.
So every time your mind says: “I know all there is to know about this already” that’s just the fear of change speaking, it’s not actual knowledge. If nothing you have tried so far has worked, then you’ll need to look for answers in a new direction.
It’s also a good idea to get help. If you would have been able to figure this out on your own, then you would have figured it out already.
Be mindful of this trap: It’s easy to think that your problem is unique. Yet, consider there are millions of people on this planet… statistically speaking, there have to be more than a few people with significantly similar problems.
If others share your problems, then chances are, there are more people out there looking for a solution and very likely some who have found that solution already. Don’t try to reinvent the HSP wheel here. And don’t buy into the myth that your are the only person on this planet with your particular problem. Problems are a lousy way of feeling special.
Try this: Map out how you have tried to solve this overwhelm so far.
- Use the details from question one to make sure your map is specific as to what is actually going on.
- Map out what you’ve tried to far.
- Then consider, what haven’t you tried?
- If you realise you’ve actually had some success with particular strategies, but haven’t been consistently applying them, then that’s your solution right there. If nothing you’ve tried before has worked, then it’s time to try something new.
Question 3: What are your reasons for not getting this solved?
How could your overwhelm be helping you?
Since overwhelm is such a fuzzy thing, it can serve as a kind of mist. As long as you feel consumed by the overwhelm, you don’t really have to deal with any deeper issues, because you can’t see those issues.
So if for example your relationship isn’t working, but owning up to that is scary, then ‘constant overwhelm’ can serve as the perfect cover-up. Or perhaps it’s important for you to set better boundaries at work, but you’re suppressing your anger about this because you were taught that “anger is bad”. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can then hand you the perfect excuse to opt out of meetings and responsibilities. Instead of having to say that you don’t want to do it because you have too much on your plate, your body puts you in a position where you just can’t cope, even if you tried, so “obviously and unfortunately” you will need to opt out of those things.
If there is constant overwhelm in your life, then it could be there because it is serving some kind of purpose. It’s hiding something from you that you don’t feel ready to face, or giving you a way out of things you can’t handle but are afraid to say no to. If overwhelm is just a symptom in this way, then resolving it will require going deeper.
Ponder this: what are some of the positive side-effects of overwhelm? Could there be a deeper (subconscious) motive here?
Question 4: What do you want?
The answer is not “not feel overwhelmed”.
Unidentified overwhelm can be like spending a day at the mall, having no idea what you’re looking for. When you don’t know what you want, you’d end up taking in everything that gets your attention somehow. If you don’t consciously set your course and determine a focus, anything and everything might be relevant somehow, so your senses stock up on information “just in case” you need it.
As an HSP you have the natural ability to take in a lot of subtle information. This means that if you don’t give your brain a plan to work with, you could very well end up taking everything in. So instead of only looking at a suitable necktie to buy for your brother-in-law for example, you end up browsing ALL the stores and ALL the items, hoping you’ll find a good gift somehow. Unless you get very lucky, you’ll end up stressed, tired and confused for sure.
It’s not the overwhelm that is making it impossible to know what you want. Rather, it’s not clarifying what you want that is creating overwhelm.
Try this: At the beginning of your day, set your focus: what do you want to achieve that day? What is important? How do you want to feel?
- Identify a few small, practical things that you want for that day.
- Whenever you start feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself of what you want, and look for a way to make that happen.
- Don’t follow up on every single thing that you notice, only pay attention to those things that fit your focus for that day.
You need to organise your brain and sensory information, in the same way that you’d organise a closet: you can’t randomly throw things in there and then get mad when you can’t find anything later. Your brain too needs a plan, you need to tell it what it needs to put in the closet for safe-keeping, and what can be thrown away.
Question 5: Where is your attention?
- Are you mostly living in your head?
- Do you feel what is going on in your body?
- Are you aware of your emotions in the moment?
- Are you taking action, or only thinking about taking action?
Often, overwhelm is an “overthinking condition”. You spend too much time thinking and too little time feeling what is true and relevant to you and acting on that.
Mental confusion and stress is very easy to create, because the mind has no inherent focus or direction. The mind is like a dog that will fetch a stick – any stick – that you throw. Depending on how many sticks there are, that can lead to a lot of chaotic fetching.
We are often taught to “think things through” and “be rational” but few people remind us that the mind is a tool, not a compass.
You don’t ask a hammer what to do or where to go. You use a hammer to help build something once you know what you want to build. Your mind is an advanced hammer, it can’t help you if you don’t know what you want it to do. Deep inspiration and direction don’t come from the mind, so if you seek it there, you’ll just end up running around in circles.
Try this: If you struggled with question 4, then start here.
- Notice what you are truly feeling. Spend some time in the morning to notice your emotions and physical sensations.
- Notice how your body responds to things during the day. What makes you feel excited, peaceful or content? What makes you feel angry, scared or nervous?
- What does that tell you about what you actually want?
The body doesn’t lie and is often closely aligned with your most authentic self.
Question 6: Are you using overwhelm to get attention?
- Are you playing the part of the lady who is always on the verge of fainting, because it seems to be the only way to get noticed and receive some compassion?
- Are you using overwhelm to prove how hard you work and how much you sacrifice yourself?
- Is being stressed something that the cool kids do to prove how important they are, and do you feel compelled to join them?
- Is your overwhelm a cry for help?
- Is your overwhelm a form of self-punishment?
Your psyche is layered and complex and there may be a bunch of reasons why overwhelm has actually become a strategy somehow.
- How did your family of origin deal with stress?
- What did you learn about overwhelm when you were growing up?
- Was it “just the way things are”?
- Did nobody believe you were stressed and tired until you were close to breaking down? What is the bigger story that overwhelm is pointing at here?
Try this: Identify the different stories and meanings attached to overwhelm in your family and country. How is it considered to be a noble, good or an unavoidable thing? Could there be a double-message (as in: it’s a bad thing, but it’s also somehow a good thing)?
Question 7: How might your overwhelm be expressing something that you are not expressing otherwise?
If you e.g. say things are fine, but your are mystified as to why you feel scared / sad / angry / lost / desperate etc (whatever overwhelm is for you) then clearly, your overwhelm is pointing to something you don’t realise about yourself.
Our body often demonstrates our bigger truth. Our energy levels, our posture, our stress levels… they tell a story that may be different from the story we tell ourselves. If so, then what is the story that your body is telling you?
Ponder this: How is your overwhelm a mystery? How does it not make sense? What questions does your overwhelm bring up for you?