How to deal with the 'deer in the headlights' feeling of overwhelm

Woman working from home
Whether it’s a heavy workload, a difficult boss or working from home with kids, feeling frazzled at work is normal. Photo: Getty

We’ve all felt overwhelmed with work at some point. But this year, between living through a pandemic, changes to the way we work and isolation from loved ones, being overwhelmed has become a common state for many people.

Whether it’s a heavy workload, a difficult boss or working from home with kids, feeling frazzled at work is normal. However, feeling overwhelmed every day can cause havoc with your wellbeing and can lead to burnout. And the harder you work to get everything done, the more stressed you can feel.

“Overwhelm occurs when we have too much to think about, or too many feelings happening, all at once,” Counselling Directory member and therapist Shelley Treacher. “We can become dissociated, confused, stuck and unmotivated because it's humanly difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time, yet, we are often overloaded with work tasks.

“There are often many distracting interruptions in a working environment too, and people can become addicted to productivity, which makes them push themselves too far. Most people want to please, so they may feel pressure to perform beyond what they can normally do.”

If you tend to bite off more than you can chew at work, you’re not the only one. Most people assume that everyone else can handle more than they themselves can, so they try to extend their own personal limits, Treacher says. Perfectionists are at high risk of feeling overwhelmed because they’re constantly seeking to do better, leading to more pressure and stress. And now, more than ever, we might fear losing work so feel the need to prove ourselves, and take on too much.

As a result, we find ourselves feeling tense, anxious and breathless. “When we rush, we breathe shallowly. This leads to the restricted nervous system activity of fight or flight,” says Treacher. “Overwhelm is the nervous system starting to close down and protect itself from too many stimuli.”

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There’s nothing worse than starting the day already dreading what needs to get done, or stressing about where to begin. But once you start feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to get out of that state of mind. However, there are steps you can take to help you calm yourself down.

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First, you need to forgive yourself for being human. It’s easy to berate yourself for being unproductive, but it’s not your fault.

“Give yourself a break, both in terms of self-criticism, and literally. Take one step at a time,” advises Treacher. “Plan your schedule. Prioritise the most important task. Complete one task at a time. Reschedule other tasks. Slow down to breathe more deeply.”

Then, you need to work on your expectations. Be honest about the amount of work you can handle comfortably. We often leave ourselves stretched too thin because of a phenomenon called the planning fallacy, a type of cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study from the 1990s, students working on a project estimated they would be finished 30 days earlier than they actually did.

Think carefully about what needs to be done first and if possible, leave the other tasks for the next day or delegate. If something can wait, put it on the back burner. Getting one task done can actually make you more productive because of a psychological theory called The Progress

Principle. When we cross something off our list, it activates the reward circuit in the brain and we feel accomplished and we feel motivated to do more. So even getting a small task out of the way can lead to big things.

It’s also important to know when a piece of work is finished. People with perfectionist tendencies may spend a long time trying to improve something, only to end up feeling frustrated and stressed.

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However, it’s also your employer’s responsibility to make sure you’re not overwhelmed or dealing with an unreasonable workload. “Employers should set reasonable limits, amount and variety of jobs for employees and have good communication between departments about how much work is given to each person,” Treachers says.

Employers must look at their own stress levels, she adds, because this can set the tone of the working environment. Ultimately, managers should set the example for staff by working reasonable hours, taking regular breaks and making sure others do too. They should also be available for clarification and discussion. “One of the most stressful experiences for an employee is feeling they shouldn't bother you with details,” Treacher adds.

“Provide an opportunity for employees to express what could be improved in their working conditions, without a defensive reception. Don't shame, rush, brush off, or get angry with employees, but encourage a dialogue about limits and support instead.”

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic