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When you can't problem-solve your way out of overwhelm, try this

First, a quick reminder: last month I shared the results of my survey on what’s going well in terms of communicating about, supporting people through, and holding people accountable for harmful behaviors related to euthanasia decisions. If you missed it, you can find the results on the Compassion in Balance website.

Ok, now onto the main show:

I know a lot of you (all of us?) are feeling really overwhelmed right now.

When we’re feeling exhausted, unmotivated, stressed, and struggling it’s hard to see things clearly.

In fact, it can be almost impossible to problem-solve our way out of overwhelm, even if we’re normally excellent problem solvers, perceive ourselves to be highly competent, and believe we should be able to figure this out on our own.

If we’re overwhelmed, we might need someone else to:

  1. Acknowledge that we are overwhelmed, that it is difficult, and how we feel is legit.
  2. Help us rest our brains by walking us through some problem-solving.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a simple, practical exercise from coach Christopher Littlefield (that I’ve modified) called Mental Factoring.

If you're overwhelmed, this can help you see your situation more clearly.

And if you’re struggling, you might want to ask someone else to help you do this exercise, so you can lean on their (hopefully) less overwhelmed brain, if needed.

1. Ask and answer this checklist of questions:

  • How did I sleep last night?
  • Did I drink water today?
  • Have I eaten recently?
  • Did I move my body today?
  • What’s the weather outside?
  • What responsibilities have I had on my plate lately?
  • What big changes or transitions am I going through?

By asking and answering these questions, you’ll be able to clearly see the many different factors impacting your mind and contributing to your overwhelm. Then ask yourself:

2. Does it make sense that I feel the way I do?

The answer to that question is always: YES!

Once you see all the individual factors involved, it takes that big amorphous blob of a feeling - Overwhelmed! Ugh! - and narrows it down to specific factors that you can address.

Or if you can’t directly control those factors, you can choose to relate to them differently.

In other words, this helps you to see there are legit reasons you feel the way you do, so you can stop judging yourself for struggling (which only adds to the overwhelm).

Instead, you can give yourself a little space and compassion.

Then take a small step to care for yourself by asking:

3. What’s a simple action I can take or a decision I need to make to help me rest and recover?

Remember: if you’re super overwhelmed, problem-solving may not be possible right now. In that case, stop pushing so hard for a solution and REST your brain.

That might look like 3 minutes of listening to calming ocean sounds, coloring or drawing, deep breathing, or vagus nerve stimulation (hum, sing, wash your face with cold water, laugh!).

Again, you might need someone else to say: Stop trying to think your way out of it. Instead, we’re doing 3 minutes of rest right now! Hopefully, you both feel the positive impact of that short break.

This is also an exercise you can offer to do with someone - a friend, staff member, etc. - who’s feeling overwhelmed.

If you do, remember to validate how they’re feeling (yes, it makes sense you feel this way!) and offer to do a few minutes of relaxation together, so they can feel that resting their brain does help.

Finally, if you’re in a leadership role, you have a responsibility to address any working conditions that are popping up on that mental factoring checklist.

Tackling overwhelm at work - especially when the whole org is overwhelmed - requires organizational-level changes. That starts with addressing your own overwhelm first, so ask a friend to walk you through this exercise and rest your brain!


“We may have lots of options or we may only have a few. But especially when the options are fewer, we want to remember what we do have control over. And one of those things is if and how much to be involved, connected, or engaged. If it’s a small break you need to keep on keeping on, give yourself some time and space to Just. Do. Nothing. Step out for a minute.” - Laura van Dernoot Lipsky



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