#03 Managing Overwhelm and Stress with 5 Powerful Tips That Work Every Time

The 360 Leadhership Podcast, Episode 03, 11 January 2022 by Lucy Gernon


    A little bit of biology, so the difference between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system (in case you don’t know I have a science background and I was actually a biotech nerd in a past life!)

·       How the fight or flight mode works.

·       5 simple tips to help you say bye-bye overwhelm and hello control instantly. I mean it guys, these are really good tips that will help you so stay tuned.

·       One simple question you can ask yourself, that puts everything in perspective

Women take on so much, not only in the workplace but at home too. Especially women in leadership roles. They care for their families, they support their friends, they make sure the dog gets walked. They rarely switch off as they’re either busy planning their kid’s birthday party or booking a dental appointment or listening to a friend who needs support, the list goes on.

But ultimately, because women tend to take on so much and don’t like to disappoint, this can lead to overwhelm and burnout. And if you’re a high achiever and ambitious, you’re more at risk of this.

And when that happens, it can feel as though your brain has literally blown a fuse and your body is about to explode. And performing at your best and being the real you in all your power, isn’t easy when you’re overwhelmed or stressed. Your brain is in a negative mode which triggers physical sensations of stress in your body. Even if this threat is not physical, if it’s something like disappointing your boss by not meeting a deadline or feeling intimidated by a difficult stakeholder, you react to those stimuli or events or thoughts in the same way you do with physical threats…. like someone is about to punch you.

How do you react? Fight or flight. Some call it fight, flight or freeze.

The fight or flight mode was first described in the early 1900s by American neurologist and physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon. He had a theory that animals, like us, react to threats by firing up their sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for stress and the parasympathetic nervous system returns the body to baseline, to normal functioning. The 2 systems operate together to keep the body in balance and are necessary for your survival. My doctor once described the parasympathetic nervous system the “rest and digest” and the sympathetic nervous system the “fight or flight.”

So when you are stressed or overwhelmed, you trigger your sympathetic nervous system which releases hormones like adrenaline. These hormones cause immediate physical reactions which are designed to protect you the human, to get you out of there to ensure you survival of the human race. So, you’ll know when you’re overwhelmed as it will manifest in your body. And this is a good thing. as you have no excuse but to do something about it, your body is clearly telling you its not happy. And if you ignore it. Your symptoms will worsen until you pay attention.

You may experience things like increased heart rate and breathing, feeling hot and tight muscles which are pushing you to get the hell out of that situation i.e. fight or flight. So the primitive part of your brain which is there to ensure procreation and survival of the human race is going to say, well, I’m going to stay here and defend my position because I’m strong or I’m going run away as I can’t deal with this.  Or if I just freeze and be really quiet maybe they won’t see me and I’ll be ok.

Can you relate?

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed with your workload or problems that you literally just freeze and shut down?

Or sometimes you may really rise to the challenge and put all your energy into overcoming or fighting that thing… but you feel exhausted afterward?

Or have you ever got to the point where you just couldn’t do it and you break down and run away?

As humans, we experience all of these situations at some point. And the trouble with our mind is that sometimes because we are so zoomed in on the problems, we fail to see the big picture. If you actually look at the big picture, you’d see there’s usually no threat at all!

So what should you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed?

I’m going to give 5 tips that are guaranteed to work every single time if you use them. You can do them all or chose one or 2 in the moment that feel right for you.

1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

This is one of my favourite mindfulness techniques. All you need is your five senses. Here’s what you do:

· 5 – Look around and name five things you can see, say it out loud if you like.

· 4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

· 3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the feeling of your phone or your hair your pet your dog (that’s a bonus one actually as it’s been proven that pets lower anxiety and stress).

· 2 – Next, two smells: Smell your perfume or go outside and breathe in and really smell the freshness and purity of the air.

· 1 – Finally, name something you can taste: have a sip of tea or just focus on the tastes in your mouth.

This technique is great for 2 reasons. First, it grounds you in your senses and, most importantly, the present moment. It brings you back from that awful place in your head. Secondly by really focusing on your senses, this interrupts whatever those thoughts are that are causing you to feel this way. It’s a mini moment of mindfulness to pull you out of your own head. Now, this takes practice. It wont work the first time but I want you to remember this technique and practice it. The more you practice, the more effective it will be.

2. Tidy up your immediate surroundings and light a candle if that’s your thing.

You’ve heard the phrase “outer order, inner calm”. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying and organising restores order and helps you feel more in control. I love tidying my desk and making everything look neat and tidy. I love nothing more than a tidy workspace with a nice scented candle. I’m a sucker for Jo Malone and The Little Wax Company candles, their candles are gorgeous and instantly make you feel calm. Even if you’re in the car and feeling overwhelmed, if you’re like me you might have some hair bobbins on your gear stick, which my husband hates, or rubbish in the car door, just remove them and grab a baby wipe and wipe down your dashboard. You’ll feel better. When you do this, it will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus and reset.

3. Ruthlessly prioritize and stop multi-tasking.

Us women are suckers for multi-tasking, aren’t we? And wanting to get loads done. Cut everything that should be done, everything that’s on your to do list that you’re beating yourself up over for not getting done, and simply stick to things that must get done.

We all have a never-ending to-do list, but unless someone is going to actually die, it’s not that important. Stay present and give whatever you are doing your full attention. Be productive, tick off the top 3 most important things on your list and when they’re done, celebrate. Even if you only get 1 thing done, that’s ok.  Be ok with knowing that whatever you’ve done today, is enough. It’s all you were supposed to get done today. The universe has your back ladies. You can’t do it all in one day and you know as well as I do that to-do list never ends! Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break.

4. Control the controllables

You can strategize, organize, plan, anticipate all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. It’s part of life. When this happens if you want to keep your sanity, the only thing you can do is to is accept it fully. If you can’t change the situation, you’ve got to change how you react to the situation. This theory has been well studied and documented. It’s the premise of CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy. Every situation triggers a thought. Your thoughts create your feelings and your feelings create your behaviours. So if you can change how you think, you will literally change everything. You can only control what you can control. Again be kind to yourself.

So for example, when you have so many plates in the air that you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can just accept that you’ll have to be late. Yes, you may disappoint your boss BUT your well-being is way more important. And I promise you, if you were to leave your role in the morning, your boss would have your job advertised the next day. Believe me.

When I used to get overwhelmed at work where I felt all this pressure to deliver, I trained myself to snap out of it. And I’d ask myself this one simple question that puts everything in perspective “Is anyone going to die if I don’t do this?” If the answer is no, I give myself permission to be ok with it not getting done and I focus on what I HAVE achieved that day. So, I want you to keep that question in your back pocket “is anyone going to die if I don’t do this today?” If the answer is no, just let it go and prioritise your own mental health.

5. Zoom out instead of in

This is my number one tip. Sometimes we are so zoomed in on this work problem that we miss the bigger picture. I remember a time where I didn’t do this, and it taught me a huge lesson that I’m hoping you will learn from.

I was away in Tramore in Co, Waterford in this beautiful holiday home by the sea with my family for my Dad’s 65th birthday. It was summertime, it was fab.  The house had a big fancy kitchen, a huge playroom for the kids full of toys, immaculate marble bathrooms, plush hotel beds, and of course, we had lots of bubbles to celebrate. All my family were there and everyone was in great form. I’ll never forget it was a Friday evening and there was a report due that day that was linked to a KPI. So these metrics were fed to the corporate mothership and indicated the performance of our site. I never missed a deadline, in fact, I was known for it. That week, in particular, was one of those weeks where there were lots of problems, people out sick and although approving something on the day it was due was typically not my style, it just happened that way. So before I headed off with my family, I made sure that the report was closed out on the system and left feeling thrilled that it was done and dusted…. You know that feeling when you’re leaving early to go away for the weekend and have fun? Yep, I had that.

Until I received a text from the author of the report to say that there was a system error as it was a new system and I needed to re-approve. Now at this stage, I was 1 hour away from my home. I didn’t bring my laptop and I couldn’t log in to this particular system on my phone.

So what did I do? I left my family and went to sort it out. No way was I letting this go overdue and I felt like this was the biggest problem in the world. This report needed to be closed by midnight or else we would go red on the metrics. So, I spent that night trying to log into the host’s computer, I couldn’t access our company system, it was a disaster. I was so stressed. I texted other managers to see if they could sign for me and basically spent about 3 hours trying to sort this out when I should have been with my family celebrating. I was so stressed at the thought of missing a deadline, that I missed out on something more important.

Had I just zoomed out a little, I would have realised that I was there in this amazing place with my family and that sometimes, these things happen, and things go late. It happens. The learning I want you to take from this is those problems that seem so big in your head, the ones that make you miss out, are usually not that important when you zoom out. Remember, if no one is going to die, it’s really not that important. Family should always come first.

Now we did have a great weekend after that, and my dad really enjoyed his birthday we went to the beach and had ice cream so all was not lost, but you get my point.

So to recap on the 5 tips:

1.     Use the 54321 technique.

2.     Tidy up your immediate surroundings

3.     Ruthlessly prioritize and stop multi-tasking.

4.     Control the controllable

5.     Zoom out instead of in

And remember that one simple question to keep in your back pocket “Is anyone going to die if I don’t do this?”

I hope you found this episode useful. If you did, please share this with 3 other women you know in leadership roles who you know would really benefit from these tips. I bet you’re picturing at least one person now… you know that person who is always busy, works long hours, and juggles so many balls?  You’d be giving her a gift if you send her this and you’d be helping me out too by spreading the word about this podcast.

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