Dealing with overwhelm at Christmas, Henrietta Nelson


I'm going to make a sweeping assumption for the purposes of this article. I'm going to assume you have a lot on your plate right now. Adding Christmas into the already heady mix of parenthood and work can often lead to us to, well, shall we say... losing it?


If you ask most people what the cause of this stress and overwhelm is, they are likely to give you a long list of answers: Christmas, to-do lists, family... For me too, these things often appear to be the source of my stress and overwhelm.


But if you looked a little more closely you would see that these factors are often inconsistent: some of the 'busiest' people don't appear stressed at all - even at this time of year. And I'm sure your own levels of overwhelm ebb and flow from day to day, even hour to hour, without huge changes to the outside circumstances. You see, sitting above any to-do list, there is an invisible element at play here.


Let me give you an example: my children broke up for Christmas on Friday. That morning, I was in a spin: I went to the supermarket and forgot what I needed; I went to Christmas coffee with some friends but wasn’t really present; I jumped from job to job all day without really achieving anything, forgot to have lunch and turned up at the carol service looking deranged. My mind was playing the story ‘it’s the last day of term and you have 20 people coming for lunch tomorrow: you have so much to do!’ on repeat.


Today, I feel calm as I write this article, I had a call with a prospective client, some funny conversations with my children and I know what I need to prioritise for the next couple of days. I can see that a lot of the things I was getting in a spin about on Friday are not important. You could say things are ‘in flow’.


I am pretty sure - by virtue of the fact you are human - you will have had your own version of both of these days. Sometimes we can flip between the two states in a matter of hours, and at other times we can be stuck in overwhelm for what feels like months.


When I was in spin out mode, I thought all of my overwhelm was caused by my to-do list and Christmas. That’s what our mind does - it looks at what's 'out there' and builds stories to explain why we are feeling a certain way - 'the trains were delayed and it messed up my whole day', 'I can't get anything done because the office is too noisy.'


We take the external reality our mind has created - which looks and feels very real - and make a causal connection as to how that is making us feel and behave. From that, it logically follows that the only way to change how we feel is to fix what's 'out there'. But, if that were the case, how would we flip from 'spin out' to 'flow' in a matter of hours? Why would a walk in nature that we really don't have time for make us feel better?


The truth is, from the moment we're born to the day we die, our thoughts are 'painting the picture' of our reality from moment to moment to moment. When we are 'in flow' the glasses through which we are seeing life are clear and we are able to access our innate wellbeing, clarity, confidence and capacity for insight. When we are overwhelmed, the picture of reality we are painting is 'clouded' by this overwhelm. These ‘overwhelm goggles’ mean we’re not seeing things clearly and as a result all those innate capabilities are out of reach. It's like we’re operating in battery saving mode.


So how does this help me deal with my Christmas overwhelm, I hear you say? The good news is that you don't need to 'do' anything. Just like a snow globe, our mind occasionally gets shaken up and we can’t see clearly. The best way to clear a snow globe is to leave it and it eventually settles of its own accord and the same is true of these feelings of overwhelm.


Whilst this understanding (clearly) hasn’t stopped me occasionally getting tricked into thinking my feelings are caused by my to-do list (thought is a great trickster), I have learned to use these feelings to let me know I’m not seeing things right.


So just before I cancel Christmas, maybe I’ll take the dog for a walk...


 

This article was written by career coach, Henrietta Nelson.