What is overwhelm?

Uncategorized Mar 06, 2018

Last week saw much of the UK with unusually unpredictable winter weather, blasted by storms, icy winds and buried under a blanket of snow. If you turned on the news it seemed as if the end of the world was nigh and that you should not leave your house under any circumstances. But if you actually ventured out where I lived it was actually ok. It was well below zero degrees Celsius and very windy, but there was only a little very light dry snow that wasn’t causing problems on the paths or the roads. Yet friends nearby cancelled events while at times I looked out onto blue skies, so there were a lot of localised variations. I don’t doubt the seriousness in other areas – many were ignoring the reality of the conditions, creating accidents and getting stranded with the resulting chaos stretching emergency services to the limit. There were horrendous videos of multi vehicle collisions and stories of heroic rescues. Schools in most areas had to close, parents were unable to get to work, supplies in the shops started to get low, trains and flights were cancelled. As most of the UK doesn’t experience heavy snow very often the whole country seemed overwhelmed and unable to cope in terms of resources and keeping things going as well as possible.

We were due to attend a family get-together in the North of the country, but it was hard to know whether or not we should go ahead, how to realistically assess the risks, the best way to make a decision. Fortunately with modern technology we could check weather forecasts, traffic conditions and potential arrival times, ask family for their up to date lived experience. We could be as prepared as possible by taking suitable clothing and footwear, warm blankets, flasks of hot water, food supplies, the snow shovel and checking the car thoroughly. So we decided to set off and found conditions were ok with some light snow, roads reasonably flowing and as we got further north there was actually less and less snow on the roads. Yet still we saw signs of road closures over higher ground so clearly conditions were very localised. When we arrived we set off for a walk and found much deeper snow and icy footpaths that caused us to slip in places, but visually it was a beautiful scene of dusk in a snowy river valley.


But things can change very quickly and be completely out of your control. Our two youngest children set off at the same time but needed to travel from London and stop off to leave things at our house. Unfortunately they experienced a whole range of challenges en route from heavy snow settling on the road, accidents causing tailbacks, several inches of snow falling on the local roads near our house since we’d left, and darkness falling. It was both worrying and reassuring to get photos and updates from them as their journey took two hours longer than expected. They experienced a completely different journey to ours, but thankfully arrived safely and we could all relax together. Still it was unfortunate that one person couldn’t make it due to cancelled trains from the South-West.


So you may be thinking how does this relate to overwhelm in our normal lives? I’m using it as an example of needing to adapt to unpredictable circumstances that create an impact on our feelings and behaviour. We may all have had challenging experiences to cope with over the last few days. Overwhelm strictly means over-strong or a great amount that is too big to manage in terms of intensity or duration. Generally there will always be some elements in life that are out of your control or influence and it is perfectly normal that it can contribute to the sense of stressful circumstances. Stress is usually down to a mismatch between the perceived obstacles and resources that you have for coping with the demands of the actions or goals. The important word really is “perception” as we all have our unique lens of seeing the world, which then creates our response to the situation. Some people are highly emotionally sensitive whereas others are very calm and laid back. My husband and son were the best people to be driving in the circumstances. We had reviewed and prepared and made the most appropriate decision before committing to action. Then we also have our own personality types and the expectations we put on ourselves, plus our typical behaviours. So the person who is quite determined and driven will often create much of their own overwhelm by having very ambitious goals and deadlines. Those who want to please others will find it hard to manage their boundaries and be able to say No. We all experience feeling overwhelmed at times and for different reasons.

So the first thing is to understand yourself in normal conditions. These are not necessarily either/or and you may feel that you are somewhere in the middle.

• Are you generally very calm and relaxed or do you react easily and emotionally to any form of perceived stress?
• Are you moderate in your self-expectations or you always pushing yourself to achieve more?
• Do you feel in control of your life or do you feel it is happening around you?
• Do you stay true to your own values and boundaries or do you always try to fit in and please other people?
• Would you tend to plan and prepare or just react in the moment?
• Do you prioritise your own self-care or always focus on helping others first?

In my next blog I’ll consider the impact of different factors that may cause us to feel overwhelmed.

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