September 4, 2009

How to Cure Overwhelm

I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve. –Montesquieu

“I just can’t do this anymore,” Paul said. It’s been hectic getting the business going, but the last month has been just awful.”

“How so?” I said.

“I’ll tell you how so,” he said. His voice had an edge to it that was practically a physical presence in my office despite the fact that we were speaking by phone. “It’s just all falling apart. Customers aren’t paying. We have a new set of workshops starting next week and enrollment is off.

“I’m trying to get more marketing collateral out to bring in more business, but the person who was doing it left for a retreat because the energy was getting to intense. And to top it off, the guy I was training to run operations and conduct some of the workshops quit and moved to Portland.

“It’s not going to work. I’m stuck doing everything, and I just want to run away.”

How so indeed.

If you live in this world, you’ve had a taste in your own life of what my client Paul (not his real name) was going through. It’s called overwhelm. It’s epidemic among small business owners and entrepreneurs, but life affords ample opportunity for overwhelm even if you live on a horse ranch in Montana.

The key to managing overwhelm is to step out of it and regain perspective. That doesn’t mean that you have to run away, though. Far from it. All you have to do is recognize the overwhelm trance and then do what’s necessary to ground yourself again.

Easy for me to say, right?

Overwhelm is nothing more than a trance state brought on when we hit sensory overload. It’s the story we make up to explain that sensory overload, too, about being trapped by circumstances over which we have no control.

Our bodies are astonishingly complex information receptors, every scanning our environment and passing information to our brains. Millions of bits of information come at us every second.

When the information gets too dense, erratic, or just plain noisy, our bodies signal us in a dozen different ways that it’s “getting a little hot out here.” Increase the information density too much and our nervous systems practically catch fire.

The brain then gets flooded with what seems like ten thousand sirens going off at once. The resulting thought? “Get me the heck out of here.”

Bingo. Overwhelm.

What should you do when you hit overwhelm? Well, you get the heck out of there! I’m not kidding, though “getting out of there” doesn’t mean you have to run away to Calcutta. Doing something as simple as taking a 30-minute walk will help. Go have a little something to eat in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot. Put on a pair of headphones and listen to calming music.

Or pick up the phone and call a friend or trusted advisor.

These suggestions may seem too simple, but they work every time. Step out of the overwhelm trance and give your body a break from all that input. Then observe the thoughts that come up, watching for any fictions created to explain the overload. Ground yourself again, then connect with someone to get a reality check.

The truth of any overwhelm situation is this: You’ve experienced overwhelm before. You haven’t made it this far in life without having gone through — and survived — many a crisis. The odds are therefore excellent you’ll survive this one, too.

Pretty much 100%, in fact.

It all comes back to awareness and a regular practice dedicated to maintaining a high degree of personal resilience. Get into the habit of stepping out of the fray several times a day. Refresh yourself. Ask for help from people you trust.

In Paul’s case, the conversation was enough to get grounded again. He’s discovered that he goes through cycles of overwhelm during this phase of business, and that he can moderate them by taking better care of himself every day.

Simple stuff. By the way, sometimes it’s perfectly okay to run away for a day or two. There may be some cleaning up to do when you return, but you’ll have the energy and focus to take care of it. Guaranteed.

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