If you’ve ever been knocked off your feet by a pounding wave and churned in the turbulence, you know what it feels like to be overwhelmed. It’s happened to me many times – both literally and figuratively – and both form indelible memories. One vivid recollection comes from an adventure on the shores of Hawaii when a friend convinced me body surfing the huge waves was a good idea. Not so much – unless you want to experience a near drowning and have sand coming out your ears for a week.
In coaching leadership teams through growth and change, inevitably, there are those who confess they are overwhelmed. An interesting note is that men don’t usually call it by name – they usually call it frustration or withdraw into a seething silence.
Overwhelm is a form of stress but it has a different profile than other types of stress. Since the imagery of being engulfed and taken under by a large wave is so apt, I’ll point out that those who seek the comfort of the poolside don’t get caught in the turbulence. Overwhelm is usually an experience of those who are stepping courageously into the tumultuous waters.
The scenarios that create overwhelm are as varied as the personalities that experience it. It’s when you are careening from one situation to the next without any sense of control. Shallow breath, rapid heart rate and a body under stress are sure symptoms. You’re tempted to throw in the towel and fantasize about immediate retirement to a remote island, but the first order of business is to suck air into your oxygen-starved lungs. You’re supposed to project the image of a put-together leader, but you look and feel like a drowned rat.
You’ve got to get your sense of direction back quickly, so what to do? Here are some practical insights, gleaned from experience.
7 Ways to Restore Your Equilibrium
- Step away and catch your breath. Physically remove yourself from your desk or the company you’re in – even if it just means stepping outside for a moment. Get quiet. Leave your phone alone. As much as I love music to calm me – I’d suggest opting for total quiet. We live in a noisy culture and the constant bombardment of news, messages and information can make it hard to clear your head. Taking a walk in nature is the scientifically proven prescription for improving your cognitive capacity. In a 2009 study by Mayer and Frantz published in Environment and Behavior, psychologists at Oberlin College randomly assigned 76 undergraduates to take a ten-minute walk in the woods beside a small river or in an urban setting near buildings and concrete parking lots, and then to spend five minutes taking in the scene. The students who walked in the woods experienced not only more positive emotions, but also demonstrated significantly greater attentional capacity and ability to reflect on life’s problems than those in the urban setting. The natural response when you have too much to do is to do more. In reality, the best way to get a handle on things is to take a break.
- Determine what is truly urgent and deal with the MOST important issue first. Refer to your core values, which serve as your compass, to get your bearings and determine your next step. A classic way to weigh importance is ask yourself the question, “how much will this matter a year from now?”. This helps you to put matters in perspective. Core values help in discerning facts from truth. For example, facts might say, “This mistake is going to cost you $60,000 and you’re going under”. When the truth is, “God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind”. Your core values anchor you to the truly important things and help prioritize.
- Journal your frustration, worries and concerns. Instead of verbally rehearsing your dissatisfaction, (otherwise known as venting), process your aggravation through writing. Most of us have applied the wisdom of making a list of the fears that keep you tossing and turning at night so you can deal with them in the morning and get some rest. Putting your concerns on paper is often therapeutic in the same way and can help you experience clarity and order in your thinking.
- Retrain your brain. Life will always bring storms with waves that undermine stability and create uncertainty. Through experience and intention, you can develop the mental toughness to stay calm and clear-headed as you navigate and lead others to solid ground. Neurologists say every time you resist acting on turbulent emotions, you are retraining neural pathways and rewiring your brain to be calmer.
- Refuel your body. You’re always hearing about the importance of rest, proper foods and exercise because they are fundamentally important. For instance, I exercise religiously as much for my brain as I do for my heart. Cardio work-outs help you handle stress. Consuming junk food and alcohol are great temptations when you are seeking stress-relief, but they serve to weaken the immune system, contribute to brain fog and deplete energy levels.
- Set boundaries. Short term problems can become a lifestyle if not you’re not careful. Screen out toxic people as much as possible and identify those that are draining your energy. Become ruthless about guarding your heart and vigilant about guarding your schedule.
- Ask for help – this is not a sign of weakness. Strong leaders are team players – they know they are not meant to achieve great things alone. John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches of the 20th century said, “We’re all imperfect and we all have needs. The weak usually do not ask for help, so they stay weak. If we recognize that we are imperfect, we will ask for help and we will pray for the guidance necessary to bring positive results to whatever we are doing.”