Posted by: Steve Andreas in: Articles
All of us experience overwhelm at times. When there is too much happening at once, it is hard to focus on what we need to pay attention to. The resulting confusion and frustration can easily “boil over” into yelling, grumpiness, or other behaviors that create even more to deal with! Another phrase for this is “sensory overload.” For instance, when I am following directions while driving to an unfamiliar address, I find that I do much better if I turn the radio off. If I don’t, I begin to have symptoms that are much the same as in those diagnosed with “ADHD,” and I am more likely to miss a turn or make some other mistake in driving.
The fundamental problem with overwhelm is that there is too much information to process in a given time frame. This can be because there is too much occurring simultaneously, or because it is being presented too fast sequentially for us to process it well. To deal effectively with overwhelm, the first thing to do is find some way to reduce the immediate sensory overload. This sensory overload has two main components. One is the actual external sensory input around us in the moment, and the other is the internal input from what is going on in our own mind/body. Let’s consider the external input first.
Reducing external input
There are two fundamental ways to reduce external input.
One is to take some kind of practical action in the real world to reduce the input, as I do when I turn off the radio when driving to an unfamiliar address. You can ask others to be quiet so you can listen to one person at a time, or ask them all to be quiet so you can concentrate on reading or a phone call. You can turn off the TV, cover your eyes so you can hear better, or leave a chaotic scene altogether, etc.
The other way is to learn internal ways to concentrate on certain aspects of the external input, and reduce or “tune out” the rest of it. Although some people are more skilled at this than others, all of us already know how to do this well in certain contexts. When my wife Connirae is at work on her computer, she automatically tunes out the sounds around her. I know this because there have been times when I had entire “conversations” with her, but she wasn’t aware of it. I’ve learned that if I want her to actually notice that I’m saying something, I need to first get her attention by calling her name, or going over and putting my hand on her shoulder. Sometimes she’ll pause, and I can see her refocusing her attention from her work and onto me. Usually she can still find the auditory memory of whatever I’ve just said and replay it in her mind and understand it. If she hadn’t refocused her attention right then, what I had said would be gone.
At first I found her ability to ignore external sounds amazing, but she’s always said it was something she learned growing up in a household with six children. (I was an “only” child in a much quieter household.) There was always a lot going on, so if she wanted to accomplish anything, she needed to focus only on that and ignore everything else. Many people who grow up in very noisy or chaotic households unconsciously learn to “tune out” these events, usually without knowing how they do it.
By remembering and reaccessing these kinds of experiences vividly we can realize that we already have the ability to reduce input in certain contexts, and learn to apply this skill in other situations where it would be useful to us—something that adept hypnotists have been doing for many years.
If we examine these experiences carefully, sometimes we can even find out exactly what we unconsciously do in our minds that makes the skill possible. This can make the skill explicit in a form that it can easily be taught to others.
For instance, “tunnel vision” is a problem in many contexts, but it is also a skill that can reduce visual input when that is useful. You can imagine a tunnel with black surroundings, through which you can only see what you are focusing on. Or you can “zoom in” on what is relevant, so that it occupies most of your visual field, overlapping and obscuring other events. Or you could defocus the surroundings so that only what you attend to is in sharp focus.
If you want to reduce auditory input, you can imagine being in a transparent sound-proof room, and if you want to hear one sound source, you can imagine having a directional microphone and headphones to allow you to do that. Or you could imagine having ears that rotate in different directions, the way a horse does. Or you could imagine a force-field surrounding you like a heavy curtain that muffles most sound, but is thinner in the direction of the sound that you want to attend to.
Recently I was at a small table with four other people. I was talking to the two people opposite me, while the two people on either side of me were also talking quite loudly to each other. I found that I had an image of the two conversations, as two different “lines” between the different people speaking. Somehow visualizing these two conversations as “lines” made it easier for me to attend to one of these “lines” of conversation and ignore the other.
We all also have had times when we disregarded kinesthetic sensations. When watching an engrossing movie, we typically ignore the feeling of the seat we are sitting on. At this moment you are probably not aware of the backs of your knees or your elbows—until I mention them, and then you attend to them, and become less aware of whatever you had been attending to previously. In an emergency, we may even be oblivious to the pain of serious injuries, because our attention is so focused on getting out of danger, or helping someone else.
Reducing internal input
There may also be a lot going on inside your mind during an experience of overwhelm. There are two ways to reduce overwhelm that are almost always useful, no matter what the content of your thoughts, One is to slow down your internal tempo, and allow events to unfold more slowly, so that you have more time to process them. You can do this in whichever of the three main sensory modalities is easiest for you. You could feel the tempo of your bodily movements slow down, you could hear the sound slow down, or you could see the moving images in your mind slow down—or do two or three of these choices simultaneously. When events are slowed down, the amount of information you have to process decreases significantly, and it will be much easier to process it in whatever way is appropriate.
The other main way to reduce overwhelm is to put some distance between you and those mental events. For instance, if you are inside a large bright colorful loud movie of the events that you are attending to, your strong feelings will occupy much of your attention, and that will make it very difficult to deal with the events themselves. When you allow all that to recede until it is at a comfortable distance from you (for instance on a TV across the room) your images will be smaller, and your feelings will become less intense, giving you more attention to devote to whatever needs to be done. You can quickly scan though the movie and determine which events are relevant, and which can be ignored, at least temporarily. That will make it easier to focus on one aspect of the movie at a time, dividing the problem into smaller parts that will be easier to resolve.
One client who complained of overwhelm truly “had a lot on his mind.” He had six simultaneous color movies, each with blaring sound, as if they were on the inside of a little planetarium dome inside his mind. With all that going on internally, it was impossible for him to focus on any part of it, and he also had little attention left for external events in the moment.
I suggested that he first allow all six movies to slow down somewhat as they receded to a more comfortable distance. When he could see all six movies at a distance, I suggested that he scan them all quickly, and decide which one was most important to focus on at the moment.
Then I suggested that one movie could come somewhat closer to him so that he could see it more clearly, while the other five became silent as they transformed from colorful movies to black and white still images. Those black and white images became icons that indicated the overall content of those other movies, serving as reminders, so that he could easily return to any of them when that was appropriate.
The previous example included a way to prioritize, so that the blizzard of simultaneous events can be sequenced, and you can focus on one thing at a time. One of the simplest ways to do this is to jot down a word or two on a piece of paper to indicate each of the things that is on your mind. Putting them all down on paper ensures that nothing will be left out, while allowing them to slip out of your mind and onto the paper, putting some distance between you and them. This makes it much easier for you to scan the list quickly and decide which item needs attention first. Some people also like to decide which item should be attended to next, and some even like to use a new sheet of paper to write down all the items in a new order that indicates the sequence in which they need to be attended to. This is fine, as long as the new list is flexible, and allows for resequencing when that makes better sense.
Mood or feeling state
Finally, consider the emotional mood or feeling state you are in because of other factors that aren’t a result of the overwhelm itself. If you are tired at the end of a day, or your state is unpleasant or unresourceful, this would be an additional distracting internal input, demanding some of your attention and reducing what is available for the challenge you are facing. You can save yourself a lot of frustration if you first do something to change your state, or wait until you feel more resourceful. Some events actually need to be attended to right away, but most of the challenges that trouble us can easily be postponed for a day or two when we feel more alert and capable.
For instance, I went through several rounds of editing this article yesterday, and wanted to go through it at least one more time. But my mind was somewhat frazzled by that time, and I knew I couldn’t concentrate well, so I waited for this morning when I could read it with a fresh mind.
What can you do to change your state in a useful way when you are overwhelmed? Sometimes it is as simple as taking a short break for a stretch, a walk, to look at something beautiful, feel gratitude for something in your life, etc. At other times your feeling state may be so strong and lasting that you need to do something more to change it, A few hours of doing something you love, especially if it involves vigorous physical exercise to clear out all the bodily chemicals that are part of feeling bad, can do wonders for your state and effectiveness.
A good night’s sleep can improve your mood immeasurably. If I am tired at the end of the day, a task can seem overwhelming, but the next morning, I can clearly see what to do, and do it quickly and easily. Other people report that they function better late at night, which has always seemed very strange to me, because I am definitely a “morning person.” If you scan through your past memories you can find many examples of the importance of changing your state. If you study those examples you can learn what you did to make that happen. Then you can use that information to discover what works best for you, and apply that to the present and future, transforming hindsight into foresight.
So the next time you experience overwhelm, pause to find out how you can reduce the flow of information so that you can deal with what is most important to you in an effective way. The key aspects are to reduce external input, reduce internal input, prioritize, and make sure you are in a resourceful mood or feeling state. Teaching these skills to people who have been diagnosed as ADD or ADHD, or anyone else who has difficulty with overwhelm, can often be very, very helpful.