Overcoming Overwhelm

Overcoming Overwhelm
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I love my work. I love the feeling of expansion and creativity that comes with addressing a challenge – be it alone or in a team. This, I feel, is ‘my best self’, and when I am in this expansive state, work is much more fun than leisure.

And yet this feeling of stimulation so easily tips over and goes into overwhelm – it happens just like that, and can happen several times a week.

When it does, it’s as if the wheels of my mind are whirring around very fast – but nothing is really happening. I have lost my balance and feel constricted, pressurized. My creativity shuts down and I become a small-minded person, a less than generous colleague, who sweats the small stuff.

My first instinct is to work my way out of overwhelm. It should make sense – if you work more, you get things done and reduce the pressure. Yet when I’m overwhelmed I find that the more I work I do, the less productive I am.

The solution is one of those paradoxical things: I can’t work my way out of it... I need to play my way out of it.

This is contrary to everything I learnt when I was growing up. I was brought up to believe that play came after work; if there was work to be done, it always took priority. And this has served me in fairly good stead and helped me to build a successful career and life. Yet hard-earned experience has shown me that what I was taught isn’t always true. On the contrary, the fastest way out of overwhelm for me is play. (Those of you who read this blog regularly will know I have a rather ambivalent relationship to the idea of play!)

The problem is, when I am overwhelmed, I simply don’t have the vision or creativity to think about what form of ‘play’ might soothe me and bring me back into equilibrium. It’s a bit like wandering around a supermarket when you are tired and hungry: Marks and Spencer’s food department, on an early evening, sometimes has this effect on me. I wander around, unable to make a decision about what to buy, rejecting everything, literally going around in square circles. I get more overwhelmed, hungrier, and more disempowered by the minute.

Similarly when I am mentally overwhelmed I have no energy to make choices. The solution in relation to play is a bit similar to the food shopping one: Preparation, having some clear ideas or solutions to hand.

And so came the idea of my play box – a box of toys (tools if you prefer) that can help me to have a short pause to reset myself to my positive stimulated self.

Here’s what’s in my play box:

· Books: fiction – and not the ‘improving’ or literary-award-winning kind – that I can pick up and lose myself in. I used to beat myself up for wasting time and money on ‘rubbishy’ books but I have learnt 20 minutes reading one is often enough to send me back fully replenished to my lucrative and productive work as a consultant. An excellent investment!

· Netflix: always having a series on the go helps.

· Favourite podcasts saved on Stitcher: current favourites include BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, the Irish Times Women’s Podcast and in-depth interviews with up and coming journalist Rory O’Connor.

· A chill-out cafe. I am so lucky to have some of Dublin’s finest cafes (The Fumbally, Cake Café, Little Bird, and Bibi’s) within walking distance of my work space. I have now got into the habit, before heavy meetings, of checking out cafes nearby, so if I need it I have a good place to go and recharge my batteries afterwards.

· My journal (I love beautiful notebooks) where I can write about what is good in my life.

· Yoga and Pilates classes: I use a variety of drop-in classes – taking time at lunchtime to attend one can lead to a much more productive afternoon.

Your play box will be different; Remember play is about doing what you enjoy doing, about you switching off. This is personal! Your play box might, for example, include walking. Walking doesn’t do it for me, my ‘monkey mind’ keeps going... And while I’m on the subject of what doesn’t work, let me say that social media increases my overwhelm rather than diminishes it, as does the constant repetition of bad news and the cynical tone on much of news radio.

According to the psychiatrist and world-renowned expert on play Dr. Stuart Brown, the opposite of play is not work – it’s depression. This makes sense to me. Perhaps you need to cut yourself some slack today and join me at the play box.

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