Four questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed

There’s so much going on in your 40s. You may be starting to experience symptoms of perimenopause, and if you’ve had children they could be going through their own hormonal changes. Combine that with caring for ageing parents, keeping a long term relationship alive or not (40-49 is the most common age group for separating) and climbing the career ladder, your fifth decade can become the perfect storm leaving you feeling overwhelmed.

And it’s no surprise that juggling all these responsibilities can feel overwhelming. When I feel overwhelmed, I feel a tightness in my chest and break out in a sweat. I find it hard to focus on anything and just don’t know where to start. So I don’t. I procrastinate and I do the ‘easy’ things that aren’t going to make a difference to the big projects I need to move forward.

(As a side note, I love this Ted Talk by Tim Urban on procrastination, which I found when I was putting off doing something!)

So, next time you notice that you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to ask yourself these questions…

Where are you focusing your energy? 

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may think that taking the time to look at the bigger picture stops you making progress. But when you’re deep in overwhelm, it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. So take time to list out and prioritise everything you’ve got on. What’s necessary? What can you reschedule or delegate? What’s driving any deadlines? Some clients like to map their tasks into an urgent/important matrix to make it really clear. 

What support do you need? 

For tasks that can’t be delegated, what support do you need? A shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen, or something more practical? Which friends or family can help you? Where else can you find support? A coach or therapist can help you get clarity, or if it’s causing medical issues speak to a doctor or healthcare professional. 

How are you fuelling yourself? 

Food, exercise and sleep are all so important for your body and mind to function well. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed they are the first things to go. 

If, like me, feelings of overwhelm and stress lead to you standing in front of the cupboard or fridge, how can you encourage yourself to pick up the healthy snacks instead of the crisps or biscuits? I create little snack packs at the beginning of the week. A little pot of nuts and fruit, some carrot sticks and a portion of hummus, a ready peeled boiled egg. If I make it easy to grab something healthy (and hide the biscuits right at the back of the cupboard) then I know I’m fuelling my body with healthy energy. 

As for exercise, I have a couple of friends that I love running with. During super busy times I may only go once a week, but it’s running (at a speed I can still chat) and it feels cathartic for me. What can you do to get moving and get out in the fresh air? 

Sleep for me is still a work in progress. Reminding myself to settle my mind with a book instead of my phone. Not taking my phone into the bedroom. Writing down anything that’s swirling around in my head before bed. I’m getting there, slowly. 

What is good in your life? 

Different studies have proven that practising gratitude can lead to deeper and healthier sleep, reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), reduce negative emotions, and change neural structures in the brain to help us feel more content. 

So, before you go to sleep at night, think of three things you are grateful for that day. Some days it’s really easy, and the things are big, like my daughter bouncing through the front door after an epic first day of secondary school (fingers crossed for September!). Some days it’s harder – my slightly aloof cat deciding to sit next to me. Going to sleep thinking of the good things can help you wake refreshed and ready for the new day. 

The first step with anything is noticing. So when you do notice feelings of overwhelm, return to these questions. 

If it’s hard to stop, find a way to come back into the moment. The 54321 tool may help. Sitting with your feet planted on the floor and breathing deeply, think of 5 things you can see, 4 you can feel, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste. Utilising all of your senses is very grounding. 

And a final thought. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend.

Sophy Wells is a ICF certified coach, helping people reflect, refocus and reconnect to what’s important, and feel inspired about work and life again.

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