Creating Space When Feeling Overwhelmed
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
—Stephen Covey, describing the teachings of Viktor Frankl
Periods of change and uncertainty can at times feel overwhelming. However, many factors that contribute to overwhelm come from within. Explore how to focus on the things that really matter and create “mental white space” that reduces the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and gives us clarity to respond skillfully and compassionately.
In my 50-day course on Insight Timer, I explain new ways of being—living a more aware, compassionate and meaningful life. This article reflects on one of my course sessions and explores how to create space and clarity when feeling overwhelmed.
Original article published March 25, 2020 on insighttimer.com
Feeling Overwhelmed: How Mindfulness Responds To The Modern Epidemic
In her book Overwhelmed, journalist Brigid Schulte shares the modern epidemic of feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and overtired. Most people are living a good chunk of their day unconsciously—rushing from task to task, saying yes more than no, not aligning energy and time with what matters most.
Mindfulness allows you to make space and also get familiar with your default patterns. When you’re overwhelmed, do you find that you work faster, put in longer hours, or just check out entirely?
The experience of feeling overwhelmed is familiar to me. I have a pattern of believing there aren’t enough hours in the day to meet all of my commitments with work, running a home, friends, play, and caring for myself and my family. It is anchored in feeling anxious about the future, about uncertainty of what is to come. And overwhelm is not just in the head—we feel it in the body—it triggers a physical experience of tightness and unease as the nervous system becomes dysregulated.
Where Does The Feeling Of Overwhelm Come From?
What are the drivers of overwhelm?
Although the norms in our society do contribute to the epidemic—leaner, global teams, expectations of being “always-on,” ever-present, and connected 24/7—many of the factors that contribute to overwhelm come from within. Deepening attention to the present moment increases insight and self-awareness to see what is really going on.
By looking deeply, you can investigate the causes and start to shift the patterns. For example, sometimes our own beliefs about how much we have to take on, what we have to say yes to, and what “done” looks like contribute to an unmanageable workload. At the bottom of overcommitment sits fear… we have a fear of losing something, missing out, being passed over, left behind…
Without bringing awareness to assumptions, we often repeat the patterns that create the outcome of overwhelm as well as the habitual ways we respond. A key question you can ask yourself here is “How am I compliant in creating the very outcomes I say I don’t want?” Are there patterns of perfectionism or seeking approval at play below the line?
From Compulsion To Choice
One of the causes of overwhelm is that we lose focus on what really matters. You might notice a similar impulse to act on what is urgent rather than what’s important. But you can create space between the impulse and the action. When you feel overwhelmed, that is your cue to step back and pause.
It’s about energy. Where does your energy go, and why? Many of us tend to unwittingly spend much of our energy on low-priority activities compared to high-value activities to meet a balanced set of needs such as physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational.
Sometimes we overestimate how much we can get done, and underestimate how much time it takes to do things. As you observe how you spend your day, ask yourself, Where is my time going and why?
Also, as your self-awareness grows, notice what you believe about asking for help, delegating, setting boundaries, and saying “no.” Journaling can help here—at the end of the day, reflect on what you would do differently or adjust in your self-management beliefs, assumptions, and habits. Also jot down what worked well that day, and your role in making it happen.
Many of us power through projects alone, reluctant to pull in others even when needed. I know this from firsthand experience. In the early days of PurposeBlue, when the business started rapidly growing, I resisted expanding my team. It took repeated rounds of mindful awareness to recognize my resistance and fears around growing too fast, and understand what was at the root of the anxiousness and fear. When I created space around the overwhelm, I was able to see more clearly and take wise action, adding to our team.
The quote from Viktor Frankl’s teachings about the space between stimulus and response: It’s about shifting from compulsion to choice, making room to breathe, reflect, and act with skill. Next time you sense yourself becoming overwhelmed or anxious, stop and drop into mindful breathing—or what’s sometimes known as the “sacred pause.” The space you create gives rise to your own inner wisdom, and a chance to reconnect with what matters. Then you can decide how to respond.
As you get familiar with the signature of what overwhelm feels like in the body, you will start to notice early indicators of an overwhelmed state. Understanding your tendencies can help you increase your resilience during times of overwhelm and create space when those moments do show up. As you bring attention to those patterns, they start to lose their grip. And you return to a spacious, alive, energetic way of being in your mindful day.
Practicing STOP When Feeling Overwhelmed For More Clarity & Space
Explore more guided meditation by Laure J. Cameron.
First, the S in STOP is a key step—to simply stop. This is the hardest part, but it’s also the most important because it is the one that creates space.
Practice awareness and recognition of what overwhelm feels like in your body, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You might notice tightness in your throat or chest, that your speech speeds up or that you interrupt others. You may feel impatient, experience thoughts of limitation, or become wrapped up in believing that there is not enough time. As you become aware that the stress of overwhelm is present, just stop and rest the body.
Next, the T in STOP is about taking three breaths. Direct your attention away from anxious thoughts and strong feelings and toward your breath to calm and relax both mind and body with slow, easy breaths. This is the sacred pause… stopping, and pausing. You can count to 10 if three is not enough.
The O in STOP is about using observation and inquiry. Take stock of your direct experience by guiding attention inward. Scan your body. What are you sensing? Now attend to thoughts… What’s here? This is where you listen to the story in your head… Are you judging or blaming yourself or others for the situation? Is your inner critic louder than usual?
Inquire with an attitude of kindness and care, as you would if you were supporting an overwhelmed friend. Use the inquiry of “What am I believing?” Is my mind worrying about the unknown future? Meet what you find non-judgmentally, with self-compassion.
Finally, the P in STOP is to proceed. Here you bring the qualities of compassion and wisdom into choosing what will best serve in this situation. What actions can you take to care for yourself and move forward toward what matters most? Could you take a walk and then come back to your top project? Could you ask for help, or negotiate a new deadline? Talk to yourself with kindness as you determine your next best action.