In 1908, American psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson recorded an important discovery that has become known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It states that our performance depends on how activated we feel.
This means that a little stress does us no harm and even makes us more productive – up to a certain point. But if the stress goes beyond a certain level, our performance drops again and a feeling of being overwhelmed arises.
Feeling overwhelmed can have many different causes: an excessive number of tasks, time pressure, emotional problems or a combination of all these. So it’s not that easy to say who exactly feels overwhelmed and at what point. A situation that is overwhelming for one person may not cause another person to feel that way. Why is that?
Feeling overwhelmed – a matter of perception
Whether a situation triggers stress in us and whether it feels overwhelming depends on how we perceive it. While one person perceives a situation as potentially dangerous and therefore stressful, another person may judge the same situation as irrelevant or even positive. Besides this initial assessment, it also plays a major role whether you feel capable of handling the situation with your available resources.
In psychology, the term resources basically refers to all the factors that you can draw upon to cope with a situation. They include both external factors, such as a strong social environment, and internal factors that are more subjective, such as the feeling that you can trust in your own strengths.
Stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed arise when you perceive a situation as potentially stressful and feel that you do not have enough resources to cope with it.
One way to avoid becoming stressed and overwhelmed is to activate your resources. Imagine a mountaineer who wants to climb Mount Everest. They will only be successful if they possess sufficient training, carry the right equipment and get support from people with local knowledge. When we feel overwhelmed, tasks appear to us like mountains that are as tough to conquer as Mount Everest. The more resources you have at your disposal, the more successful you will be in conquering these mountains.
Avoid becoming overwhelmed by activating your resources
Another option is to try to assess the situation differently.
Our thought patterns are often deeply ingrained and therefore difficult to control. Thoughts like “I can’t do it” or “This is never going to work” sometimes pop into your head almost automatically. Perfectionist demands like “Don’t make any mistakes” can also lead you to perceive situations as overwhelming.
Consciously trying to assess the situation positively and encouraging yourself with thoughts such as “I can do this” or “I can handle this” will help you to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.
What you can do about feeling overwhelmed
Activating resources or changing thought patterns may seem very difficult when you are in that state of feeling overwhelmed. Even if you feel very helpless at first and are finding it difficult to stay calm, you are not simply at the mercy of such feelings. Here are 5 helpful tips that can support you in dealing with or preventing feelings of being overwhelmed.
1Change your perspective
When you feel overwhelmed, problems often seem insurmountable. Changing your perspective on the situation be an important step in regaining your composure. Try to adopt an attitude of curiosity towards the situation, like a mountaineer who is about to attempt a new ascent. By perceiving what’s in front of you as a “challenge” rather than a “problem”, you can already begin to shift your perspective on the situation and feel more confident.
2Anchor yourself in the moment
In moments when you feel overwhelmed, you probably have a thousand thoughts running through your mind. This can easily prevent you from concentrating on the here-and-now and cause you to get lost in your worries and doubts. In order to anchor yourself in the moment and put your thoughts in order, try using the 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 exercise.
5 – 4 -3 – 2 – 1
Look around you and become aware of 5 things. What do you see? Now focus on the sounds in your environment. Pick out 4 different sounds that are in earshot. What do you hear? Now direct your attention to your body. Pick out 3 physical sensations. What do you feel? Now focus on 2 different tastes you can perceive. What are they? Sour, salty, spicy, bitter? Even if you can’t find specific words to describe them, be curious and try to become aware of a difference between the tastes. Now turn your attention to your sense of smell. Identify and name a specific scent that you can smell. Whether it’s tea, coffee, fresh laundry or a smell from outside – try to describe your impressions neutrally, without judging them. When we judge whether something is good, bad, right or wrong, we tend to fall back into automatic patterns of responding to situations that give rise to feelings of stress.
Take a deep breath and set priorities to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Try to assess and prioritise your tasks according to two categories: importance and urgency. Which tasks are most important, and which need to be addressed most urgently? Focus first on important problems that need taking care of urgently, then move on to the next task in the sequence of priority. This strategy is also known as the Eisenhower Principle. You can also check off the tasks you’ve completed so far. This makes your progress visible and increases your motivation.
Though it’s true that there are only 24 hours in a day, trying to cut back on mealtimes or rest won’t help you feel less overwhelmed. It’s important to give yourself breaks and opportunities to relax in the course of your day. Half an hour can be enough to recharge your batteries. Go for a walk, exercise, take a break in a nice café or just settle down on the couch and close your eyes. Cutting back on sleep is not the answer either. Your body and mind need sleep to recover, so you’re ready to perform at your best again.
The higher the mountain you have to climb, the more important it is to switch off sometimes. After all, no one ever conquered Mount Everest in a day.
5Ask for help and share how you’re feeling
Of course, it’s nice to receive praise and recognition for a project you’ve completed on your own. But just like a mountain expedition, it can be dangerous to take on too much. We don’t have to tackle every challenge we face single-handedly, nor is it possible to do without, sooner or later, everything becoming too much to handle.
Think about the people around you who are important to you. Share how you feel with them, discuss what you’re going through or ask them for help with particular problems. This is not a weakness, but a strength – even the best mountaineers don’t scale the high peaks alone.
Manage stress with HelloBetter
Tackling your feelings of overwhelm can be very draining. But the more you share your feelings with others and address your problems one step at a time, the more satisfied you will feel when you reach the top of that mountain, look up and see only clear blue skies.
If you continue to feel overwhelmed and stressed, you can find more tips to combat stress and to prevent burnout in our blog. In addition, we at HelloBetter have developed an effective online Stress Management course, in which we show you more methods for successfully dealing with stress and feeling less overwhelmed.