Poppy and I went adventuring in a creek recently. It was so peaceful. There are struggles and difficulties all around, then there are these islands within it all that are so precious, where everything is still.
I clear a space and ignore my phone. No multi tasking. The curse of the freelance life – work creeping into every waking moment, is deliberately put aside. I don’t problem solve, plan dinner, handle admin. There is a rare clarity, ice clear and deeply refreshing.
Since I last burned out a couple of years ago, I’ve been quietly exploring a private project: what creates overwhelm, and what reduces it? Burn out is bigger than overwhelm, but for me it was the biggest and longest issue I had to deal with. I see overwhelm everywhere, not just at work but in everyday life, most especially for parents. It’s often framed as part of various mental illnesses and disabilities, but it’s such a common and difficult experience I feel it needs its own name and space to be understood.
For me, overwhelm is a chronic state of exhaustion, scattered thought, poor concentration, emotional intensity and changeability, and inability to grasp or manage tasks.
I’ve been borrowing ideas from many sources, and using my own therapy as a kind of compass to treat my own overwhelm. I try things out and notice if my overwhelm deepens or eases. I’ve found reflective journaling is ideal for this. Each day or two I journal and notice what’s helping and what’s making things worse. I get an overview that’s nearly impossible for me to find any other way.
Some days when my overwhelm is high, I can barely walk into my shed. It’s way too much to handle, a million things all needing organisation I simply don’t have and I feel such panic that even opening the door makes me want to cry. Other days when my mental space is going well I can walk in and my mind is clear. It’s really not so bad, just a few bits and pieces. I can see what needs to be culled or sorted, packed better, given away. It’s so manageable. The difference can be startling!
Trying harder doesn’t help
For example I’ve found overwhelm is often embedded with false beliefs about productivity – that doing more and working harder and longer are essential to productivity. So my intuitive solution for the early signs of overwhelm (one of which is reduced productivity) is unfortunately to do a bunch of things that are likely to make it worse.
As counter intuitive as it feels, rest, doing something completely different, and setting aside proper time to deep dive instead of scattered multi taking are all very useful for productivity.
Understand the weight of the invisible mental load
One of the challenges about burnout in life rather than work is how difficult it can be to get a break from it or even see it clearly. Some of us find a lot of our work isn’t only unpaid but unrecognised, even by ourselves. We feel exhausted but can’t name what we’ve done all day, can’t take time off but don’t use the concept of being ‘on call’, and end up fitted to the gaps in the somehow more important activities of study or formal paid employment being carried out by those around us. Being able to notice what we do and who we do it for can be essential to recovery. I have found simply tracking my time has been eye opening in terms of things like how much sort work I do for others on a daily basis. This isn’t a bad thing – unless I don’t factor it in. This is a very interesting article on the topic of invisible mental load.
Executive function capacity is a limited resource
I’ve also found it useful to consider ideas around ‘executive function’ from the autism community (here’s a great post about an adult autistic’s perspective on his struggles with executive function limitations). Executive function issues also turn up a lot for folks with ADHD, trauma, and dissociation. They relate to our ability to plan, sequence tasks, keep track of time, and prioritise.
Many higher level brain processes are limited resources. If I’m living such a chaotic life that I need to use a lot of thought to plan hanging out my washing, that’s a lot of capacity being used up on tasks of daily living. Routines, structures, and rhythms are ways I can take those tasks out of intense intellectual activity and into habit, which is largely mindless and takes little mental energy. (which can help explain why some folks become very wedded to routines – if you have limited executive function your routines are your safe way of keeping life going)
It’s the same process that makes driving an intense intellectual process for a new driver, and something that can be done on autopilot for an experienced one. Autopilot frees up capacity for other tasks, or mental rest.
The impact of decision fatigue
Decision fatigue is also an important aspect of overwhelm, and one that burdens those of us in poverty much more than others because poverty involves constant trade offs – and these are the most mentally exhausting decisions we make, between two or more important things when we can’t have both (like food or medicine). There’s a great article here that unpacks this more as well as a lot of interesting research behind the ideas.
Sometimes the job is impossible
Overwhelm is often a response to a catch 22, or an impossible ask. Parenting through adversity of any kind often involves trying to accomplish very challenging tasks, such as supervising very young children while severely sleep deprived or ill, or trying to provide quality childcare and household management simultaneously,or meeting the physical, social, and emotional needs of several children of different ages/needs, at the same time.
I sometimes find it helpful to think of parenting as if it was a job, and thinking about what my union might be asking for when they want better, safer conditions. Do I need less tasks? More time? More skills? Rest? Support? All of the above, of course, but some weighed more than others, and some easier to find solutions to.
When I ask myself ‘What’s usual in thr paid versions of this role?’ sometimes the pressures and catch 22s emerge in a way I couldn’t see before. It can also help me to see and articulate difficult concepts such as I love being with my kids but I hate trying to create fun safe times together and also sort out all the washing. When everything merges together it can hard to figure out where things are actually working because it all feels awful.
‘All or nothing’ is a game you always lose
Another thing I’ve been finding helpful is to watch out for the ‘all or nothing’ mindset that kicks in when I’m overwhelmed. I know I need a break and I’m dreaming longingly of the weeks away on camp, but turn down the opportunity to have ten minutes to myself because frankly, what’s the point.
I have been finding it difficult to make ‘wild time’ since the kids came along. I miss my long late nights writing poetry, driving under stars, and sitting by the sea. For the last month I’ve experimented with 10 minutes by myself in the bedroom each night, with candles and my journal. Part of me hates this – where’s the spontanety? The stars overhead? The long hours? How can wildness be scheduled?
That part is right, it’s not the same.
And yet, it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s still a candle, a bone pen, a sacred space. It might be a snack instead of a full meal, but it still nourishes my soul. And a nourished soul speaks its needs louder, is more playful, resilient, and certain. It keeps seeking a heartful and passionate life. 5 minutes of painting is better than not touching the brushes for 5 years because you don’t have the time.
‘Freeze’ is a type of threat response that looks like overwhelm
I’ve found helpful with overwhelm to understand what scares me. This is much harder than it sounds. Sometimes I know I’m scared, sometimes I just get sick, or develop new pain or symptoms. As someone with childhood trauma I have the common but deeply frustrating experience of sometimes learning about my feelings through problems with my body and health. This means having to interpret the myriad of random symbolic issues that turn up. It can be a slow and frustrating process.
Other times I’m well aware I’m stressed, panicked, frozen, blocked. But I often have little idea why or how to get past it. Why is it that some days emails make me freeze and are impossible to reply to? I’m sitting at my desk in tears, humiliated and full of frustration and self loathing, but I cannot make myself do the un-doable task. We’ve all heard of flight and fight but are less familiar with freeze. If you are scared and don’t feel up to a task you are facing, some of us freeze and shut down.
Overwhelm can be a response to abuse
Not being able to think straight, remember, plan, or use higher mental facilities around an abusive person has long been recognised as a common problem for people being harmed. Making plans away from them is often essential because deciding what to in the moment can be impossible. There nothing wrong with you and it’s not unusual
It’s also not uncommon when the abuse is internal. For example, if I’ve often used a ‘stick’ to motivate myself with, forcing compliance even when I’m frightened, tired, or overwhelmed, using meanness and bullying to push myself through hard tasks, I’ve set this scenario up. Overwhelm at some point is as inevitable as a plant wilting without water.
Empathy is restorative
Making safe spaces to deeply listen and empathise with myself has been crucial. I’ve been working with an art therapist on this, instead of trying to push through or problem solve, instead to deeply and non judgementally listen. It’s harder than it sounds!
Deliberately seek the opposite
There are many opposites of overwhelmed such as calm, content, flow state, and confident. Some of them will resonate as more important to you than others, and you can explore more about those ones.
For me one of the biggest costs of overwhelm is in my confidence, so a side project that’s developed out of this one has been: what builds my confidence? I’m finding resources like this TED talk insightful. Repetition builds confidence which is useful to be aware of given how often I work at edge of skill, seduced by the appeal of a challenge. I adore challenges but I’m also anxious, vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and discouraged by failure and rejection. Learning to pull back on the challenges a little and build on more successes is helping greatly. Intentionally working to reduce my overwhelm this way has been incredibly helpful for me.
If you are struggling with overwhekm or care about someone who is, take heart. I hope there’s been some useful food for thought here. Our interdependence is invaluable in situations like this. Someone we can swap scary tasks like booking each other’s dentist appointments. Sometimes the one with more executive function can help break down a task or sequence a series of goals for someone struggling. Many articulate people with these challenges are sharing their strategies so others can borrow and build on them. You can tweak and change and develop things so that the overwhelm eases and you can think again. Best wishes.