Updated: May 25
Are you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted? Do you feel like you just want to hide under the covers with Netflix and a bottle of wine?
If so, you’re not alone.
Overwhelm is a natural response to perceived danger, and it can affect your mood, your ability to connect with people, and your ability to get things done.
But there are ways to break the cycle of overwhelm and get back into a productive state.
In this article, I’ll show you two hacks you can do right now to calm your nervous system and get back into a functioning state. Plus, I’ll take you through a simple process to take that calm and translate it into action.
What is Overwhelm?
Overwhelm is a survival mechanism that has evolved to protect us from danger.
It involves the activation of your sympathetic nervous system, which is also known as the fight-flight-freeze response.
When this part of your system is activated, it shifts you out of your naturally calm, creative, and generative state and into survival mode.
In this state, it becomes difficult to think clearly, make decisions, and get the things done that are causing the overwhelm in the first place.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that it’s a natural response to perceived danger and you’re not alone.
What Causes Overwhelm?
Most often, overwhelm is caused by fear of failure and fear of the unknown.
This can happen when there’s too much on our list, or when we don’t know how to do the things that are on it.
We may also have a nagging feeling that there’s something we’re forgetting and that other shoe is going to drop.
How to Break the Cycle of Overwhelm
The first step to breaking the cycle of overwhelm is to turn off your sympathetic nervous system and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is your body’s naturally calming and healing system, and it can boost your energy, focus, clarity, decision-making, motivation, and ultimately your ability to be productive instead of reactive.
One way to do this is by shifting to peripheral vision. This involves expanding your visual field and taking in a wider range of sensory information. You can do this with a practice called “Hakalau”, which comes from a Hawaiian meditative and spiritual practice.
To do Hakalau, fix your eyes on a point about 45 degrees above where you’re looking, and then take your hands and move them wider and wider until they’re at the very edges of your field of vision. Then slowly move your eyes down until you are looking ahead normally keeping your eyes defocused. This tells your nervous system that there’s nothing to be afraid of and you can calm down.
Another technique you can use is 'Sensory Awareness'.
This involves focusing on one of your senses for about 10 seconds or more.
The easiest of all is touch. Just pick anything that’s easy for you to touch, like your sleeve, computer, table, or chair, and notice how the texture feels against your skin.
This is a quick way to shift into a state of calm and shut out the mind.
How to Sustain Calm and Get Back in Action
Now that you’re in a state of calm, it’s time to get back in action.
The most important thing you can do is take action on the thing that scares you the most.
Our minds have lots of outdated and unproductive ways of coping with stress, like yelling at our kids, or micromanaging how someone does something, but unhelpful as those strategies may be, nothing is scarier to the mind than no strategy at all.
So the first step is to get it out of your head and onto paper. This could be a to-do list, pros and cons list, if-then strategies, or even just a mind map or brain dump.
This makes the unknown known and gives your mind something to work with.
The next step is to TAKE ACTION.
Again, the most effective thing to take action on is the thing that you’re dreading or most afraid of.
This could be sending an email, setting up a time to talk with someone, or writing that first paragraph.
Once your deep mind believes that you know what needs to be done and you are taking action, it can settle back down and get back to more productive things.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that it’s a natural response to perceived danger and you’re not alone.
There are ways to break the cycle of overwhelm and get back into a productive state. Try shifting to peripheral vision with the 'Hakalau' practice, or using sensory awareness to focus on one of your senses.
Once you’re in a state of calm, the most important thing you can do is take action on the thing that scares you the most.
If you’d like to learn more about how to balance your busy to-do list and unlock your true potential, check out my Busy to Balanced Masterclass.