You’ve probably said you’ve been overwhelmed at work.
But Brené Brown, researcher, vulnerability and courage expert, says using the word “overwhelmed” when you don’t really mean it can put you at risk.
“When we say we’re overwhelmed, it’s really telling our body, “Things are happening too fast, we can’t handle them. Shut down. Shut down,” Brown said in her podcast Unlocking Us.
Instead, we need to assess if we’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed. When we’re stressed, we feel a lot of outside (or even internal) pressure, but we can handle it. We know what actions to take to fix it. We can logistically and emotionally take on those actions, even if we’re concerned about how much time and effort they’ll take.
Overwhelm, on the other hand, means we’re incapable of taking action. We’re so consumed by the pressures on us that we can’t do anything about it.
“Overwhelm means an extreme level of stress and emotional and or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function,” Brown says. “So I think the big difference is we can function in stress, we really can’t function in overwhelm.”
What Can You Do When You Feel Overwhelmed?
So what can you do if you feel extremely stressed out — and potentially overwhelmed — at work? First, consider whether you’re stressed or actually overwhelmed. If you’re stressed, you’ll be able to continue to work as needed, even if it takes more effort.
If you’re overwhelmed — meaning you can’t even begin to get the next thing done — you need to do nothing. Not “do nothing” and continue as normal, but literally do nothing.
“The research shows, the nothingness is the only way to really reset after overwhelm,” Brown says. “I walk out of here and I go straight to the parking lot. And I just walk circles in the parking lot for 10 or 15 minutes and then I can come back and try to reset.”
“Nothing” doesn’t have to be going to the parking lot and doing laps. But it doesn’t mean distracting yourself with something else, like checking social media or tending to a pet. Doing “nothing” should mean you’re not doing any extra action to add to your overwhelm. It should mean you’re taking a complete step back from your life in order to reset.
Brown says: “So now, I really do not use the word overwhelm unless I’m prepared to walk out and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes.”
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