Do you remember the game Jenga?
You might know it. Here’s how it works: you stack blocks on top of each other to build a tower. As you remove blocks, the tower gets unsteady, until it eventually comes toppling down.
When you’re a goal-oriented overachiever, every day can feel a little bit like a game of Jenga.
Responsibilities and expectations stack on top of each other. Gradually the pressure chips away at your ability to focus and deliver results, just like removing Jenga blocks bit-by-bit. You may feel like you’re trying to accomplish it all with a shaky mental and emotional foundation.
The result? You spiral down into feelings of fear, worry, and self-doubt. You get so caught up in overthinking and emotional overwhelm that it takes you hours to regain your composure.
The good news is there are steps you can take any time you feel overwhelmed to regain control of your day and get back to what you do best – delivering results in minutes not days.
How to Stop Overthinking
1. Down-Shift Your Body
Most self-improvement advice says recognizing your thoughts is the first step to calming down. But you’ve probably found that this isn’t true for you. In fact, if you’re anything like me and the highly sensitive executives that I work with, you find that the more you focus on the worries, and judgments rushing through your mind, the more anxious and stressed out you become.
For that reason, you need to approach conquering overwhelm differently. In your case, your first task isn’t gaining greater awareness of your emotions; it’s to bring your mental and physical state down from overdrive, back to baseline.
A simple way to stabilize your physical state when you feel emotionally overwhelmed is with a mindfulness skill called grounding. Grounding techniques help you de-escalate your emotional reactions and physically calm down your nervous system.
One of my favorite grounding exercises is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. You can also try:
- Clenching and releasing your fist
- Digging your heels into the floor
- Relaxing your hips into the corners of your chair
- Concentrate on the eye color of the person you’re speaking to
Paying attention to concrete, observable sensations and objects around you – channel your attention toward what’s true and what you can control, versus the chatter running through your head.
2. Drain Your Brain
Now that you’ve calmed down your physical state, it’s time to tackle what’s going on inside your head.
You probably tend towards keeping thoughts and feelings inside. You keep your head down, try to focus on work, and don’t want to be perceived as weak or too sensitive. But this approach frequently backfires. It can lead to distraction, resentment, and indecision. That’s why finding a proper release to help you cope with your naturally powerful and intense emotions is so critical.
One healthy coping skill is emotional release writing. Freewriting about overwhelming emotions is a remarkably effective means of creating clarity and regaining perspective. It helps you organize your swirling range of inner reactions and make sense of it all in a more productive way.
Grab your notebook, pop open a fresh Word doc, or print this page to use as a worksheet. For 5 minutes, write about what you’re feeling overwhelmed about. Journal in response to the specific emotions you feel, like “I feel demoralized because…”, “I feel jealous because…”, or “I feel panicky because…”
The goal of this practice isn’t to solve your problems yet, but to explore them – to stop them from bouncing around inside your head and distracting you.
3. Decide on an Action
As much as I wish I could give you a simple, prescriptive formula, for the best action to take, the truth is that you must arrive at the answers for yourself, considering your goals, the particular situation, and the other people involved.
What I can do is lead you down the path toward answering the question, “what action available to me is in line with my goals?”
Whenever my clients find themselves paralyzed about how to act, I ask them these questions:
- Do you have all the information you need to make a decision? If not, what can you do to get a better understanding?
- What does a successful resolution to this challenge look like?
- What would you regret not doing or saying?
- Which action is most aligned with your values?
- What’s the worst that could reasonably happen if you choose a certain action? Are you okay with this outcome?
- What’s the best that could happen if you choose a certain action? Are you satisfied with that outcome?
Exploring these questions will help you feel empowered and more confident to respond in productive ways.
Overthinking and overwhelm averted. Now you have a simple, fast game plan to get back on track when the pressure of your career and your own high standards threaten to take you off course.