Last month I was grabbing lunch at Pret in London Euston before a speaking gig, when the inevitable suddenly hit me. It was coming faster than the overpriced cinnamon syrup in my latte.
… Christmas music.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. A joyous time of celebration, rest and recovery. And a time that can also be overwhelming and incredibly demanding for others.
I find myself in the latter camp. The swarm of social obligations, buying meaningful gifts, commercialism and excessive indulgence just add an extra layer of marzipan to the festive stress cake.
A few friends have recently described feeling ‘overwhelmed’, so naturally I took the liberty of writing a blog post about this.
But what do we mean by ‘overwhelm’?
The dictionary says: “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something, especially water.”
Ironic in the Lake District, perhaps. But for this, I’m going to focus on emotional overwhelm; where emotions become so strong that they overpower our ability to cope. It can affect us physically (headaches, racing heartbeat, insomnia), cognitively (difficulty concentrating, making decisions or solving problems) and emotionally (irrational thoughts, mood swings, pessimism).
Overwhelm can be caused by a variety of things, like health issues, major life events, workload, bereavement to name but a few.
Christmas can be especially overwhelming for people experiencing bereavement, which is undoubtedly the worst kind of grief. But bereavement isn’t all about losing a loved one. It can also be the loss of our identity: be it a career, sport, or caring for someone else.
Personally, the loss of running and exercise with Long Covid since May has drastically reduced my usual coping ability for life stressors, and left me feeling overwhelmed at times, particularly after regular relapses of symptoms.
These changes can bring a surge of cortisol or ‘stress hormones’ and feel overwhelming. The classic Kubler-Ross ‘Change Curve’ is a useful albeit simplistic way of thinking about it. We can probably see ourselves in each of the stages, but I’ve found that these stages don’t come in some predictable order. They come in waves. Over the last few months, I’ve found myself stuck in the depression stage quite frequently, before crawling my way back into the light of the acceptance phase once again.
So… how do we cope with feeling overwhelmed?
Take stock. First off, write a list. Sometimes getting it out of our heads and onto paper can help to decipher what’s an actual problem and what has grown from irrational thinking. This way we can break it down into manageable stages and start with the most important bits rather than feeling paralysed.
Slow down. This might sound counter-intuitive but when overwhelmed we tend to speed up and work harder in a bid to regain control, but instead our efficacy drops and we end up running around fighting wildfires like a 6-year-old with a SuperSoaker. Breathwork has been a recent addition to my toolkit. To be honest, I had always snuffed the idea as a bit hippy-ish. Until I discovered compelling science around the benefits, particularly for calming down the autonomous nervous system and switching to the parasympathetic ‘rest and repair’ state, which is thought to be closely involved in the manifestation of Long Covid and other chronic illnesses.
Clear the noise. President Barack Obama was famously reported to have only two colours of suit, so that he could save his cognitive energy for more important decisions. If only Trump had taken note… Still, decluttering our physical environment can declutter our mental space too. In your schedule, start with the non-negotiable ‘rocks’ – like a booked holiday, appointment, or project – and work the rest around them. Set a deadline for decisions and trust that you made the best choice with what you knew at the time. Building a consistent routine, like planning your weekly training out in advance, can save us the analysis paralysis of things that don’t really matter. And don’t forget that sage old mantra to new commitments: if it’s not a ‘hell yes’, it’s a ‘no’!
Focus on what you can control. Whilst it would be nice to knock the Ukraine war on the head or boycott Christmas altogether – we can’t. But we can change our exposure to it. We can excuse ourselves from excessive social commitments or limit our time on social media. The ‘Freedom’ app is a great way to block our access to social media apps for a set time each day, during work hours, or even taking a break altogether – especially when everyone else on Instagram seems to be out running and you’re popping more Antihistamines with a banging headache.
Let it all out. The paradox of depression is that it can make us withdraw and isolate from others. In reality, this is exactly the opposite of what we need to recover. It’s a big red flag when we stop making plans and commitments because we don’t feel like it, or showing up as our usual selves is too exhausting. But we’re social animals, even the introverted types, and social contact puts the brakes on the stress response we get from feeling isolated. Other people have the benefit of being outside the weeds – and can take a more rational perspective on the issue that we might not have. N.B If you’re the person being ignored by a friend or relative – please don’t take it personally or try to ‘fix’ anything. But please do keep showing up, be present and offer a non-judgemental space to listen. We do appreciate it.
Acceptance. Focusing on the now can be uncomfortable. Projecting ourselves into the future and striving for goals provides the ability to imagine a better place and the hope we need to move forwards. Recently I’ve started to accept I simply don’t know if or when I’ll be able to set goals, challenges or run properly again. And nobody else knows either. Rest assured, I haven’t absconded myself to a Bohemian green tea-drinking meditative existence in a remote forest (yet) and I’m fully determined to be back doing what I love most, at whatever cost. But accepting change allows us to focus on what we can control right now, rather than what we can’t and repeating the same process in the hope of somehow getting a different result.
On that note, I recently discovered that I had less than 20 Wainwright summits to complete. For those that don’t know, the Wainwrights are a collection of 214 hills in the Lake District, immortalised by legendary fell-walker and author Alfred Wainwright.
Slow hill-walking seems to be in my ‘green zone’ right now, without causing a relapse of Long Covid symptoms, and I’m very grateful for that. So I’ve now focused on completing the Wainwrights before the end of the year. Luckily, Wainwright created the map, so all I have to do is choose the next summit and take one small step at a time. Seasons change, and so do we.
Whatever helps you to overcome overwhelm – I hope you get lots of it for Christmas. As always, get in touch if I can help.