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How to Manage Overwhelm and Move Forward

I think we've all been there. You find yourself doomscrolling on the couch not really reading or looking at anything. You flip through the Netflix menu for an hour and decide on nothing. You're rushing around doing ten things at once and you stub your toe and start sobbing - not because of the pain but because it was the last straw. And all of the time this is happening all you can think about is how much you have to do. These are instances of experiencing overwhelm.

In psychology, overwhelm refers to a state of being completely overcome or overpowered by intense emotions, thoughts, or stimuli, making it difficult to manage or respond effectively. This can manifest in various ways, including emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological responses.

Types of Overwhelm

Emotional Overwhelm: Experiencing intense emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, or frustration.

The symptoms of emotional overwhelm can be emotional outbursts, mood swings, irritability, or feelings of being trapped or helpless.

Cognitive Overwhelm: Difficulty processing information or making decisions due to excessive mental load. The potential symptoms of cognitive overwhelm are confusion, inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, or mental fatigue.

Physical Overwhelm: The body's response to stress or overstimulation. Symptoms of physical overwhelm can be fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, or gastrointestinal issues.

Behavioral Overwhelm: Actions or behaviors that reflect an inability to cope with stress.

Behavioral overwhelm symptoms can look like procrastination, avoidance, withdrawal, or engaging in maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse or doomscrolling.

We are going to focus on behavioral overwhelm for the purposes of this article. I've experienced behavioral overwhelm that increased over the course of the pandemic, especially when coupled with my ADHD. Especially when I already knew I was a master procrastinator - and then one day realized that nobody ever taught me to prioritize. Which led me to reflect on education in general, and this is just not something we are taught as students. Instead, we procrastinators proudly profess that we "work best/are the most creative in the last minute" when stress is high and we are losing our minds, but we despise it when students do the same thing. We also hope that students naturally know how to prioritize, but for students that don't they do what they think is right. So, their practice in prioritization just looks like they do the things they want to do first and then procrastinate against the things they don't want to do because they're not shown another way. Sometimes, they're not shown another way because WE don't know another way. Then the cycle continues.

And, of course, procrastination and stress is linked to overwhelm. We often look at overwhelm as emotional overwhelm, but behavioral overwhelm tells us that shutting down is a response to being overwhelmed. Yet, we still need to get stuff done.

The Five-A-Day System

This issue is why I developed the Five-A-Day System. I was in a rut and not able to get the stuff done that I needed to do daily because I was overwhelmed and shutting down. However, my body shutting down was not conducive to getting my work done - or even things in my personal life for that matter. I was falling behind and the more I fell behind, the more overwhelmed I became. I needed a system and a new notebook or planner was not working for my specific issues - in particular the lack of prioritization and the incessant procrastination.

The Five-A-Day System is about setting up a daily to-do list based on a tiered, layered process for set-up. I built the system as an ADHDer, but it can work for anyone who has a to-do list that is overwhelming them. It's about getting control over things that need to be done and setting yourself up for success moving forward. The system allows you to:

  • Check boxes (incredibly satisfying)

  • Know when you're able to get a task done

  • Begin early on projects and larger tasks to reduce procrastination

  • Manage your time better

  • Know ahead of time what needs to be accomplished

  • Keep a running and scheduled list of planned to-dos

  • Reduce your cognitive load with ongoing planning

I didn't set out to write a book about the Five-A-Day system, but when I felt like I was struggling to move forward and I was using it, people started to ask me how I was able to get so much done. When I told them of my overwhelm and procrastination issues, so many people could relate. I wrote the Five-A-Day System book to assist others so they could find relief, too.

You can find the book on Amazon here. Coming soon, you'll find a Five-A-Day System course on my website, and you'll have access to scheduling individual goal coaching. Stay tuned!

The Five A Day Cover

Strategies to Manage Overwhelm

Outside of the Five-A-Day System, here are other ways to manage overwhelm.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

Practices such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga can help in calming the mind and body.

Time Management

Prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and delegating responsibilities can reduce feelings of overload.

Cognitive Restructuring

Challenging negative thoughts and reframing them positively can alleviate cognitive overwhelm.

Seeking Support

Talking to friends, family, or a mental health professional can provide emotional support and practical advice.

Setting Boundaries

Learning to say no and setting clear boundaries can help in managing commitments and reducing stress.

Overwhelm is not a sign of weakness or inability to cope; it is a natural human response to excessive demands and stimuli. Recognizing the signs of overwhelm and implementing coping strategies is crucial for maintaining mental and physical well-being. In educational settings, workplaces, or personal life, creating environments that support mental health can help mitigate the risks associated with overwhelm. And if you need a tool, give the Five-A-Day System a try.



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