Overwhelmed? Here’s how to beat it

10.31.12 Thumbnail OverwhelmedFor certain kinds of overwhelm the primary problem is that your brain has its activity stuck in the wrong area.  You overcome the feeling, by moving the activity to a different part of the brain.  You act differently, which makes you think differently, and then finally you feel things differently. 

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By Tom Cox

10.31.12 Blog OverwhelmedMy client Jean was overwhelmed.

The big meeting was tomorrow, the stakes were high, and there was so much she didn’t know.  “My mind is racing, and I’m paralyzed,” she told me. “I can’t eat. I can’t prepare.  I don’t even know what I’m preparing for. I know I won’t sleep tonight.”

I coaxed her into letting me coach her.  After my first two techniques failed, we hit on one that did.

For certain kinds of overwhelm the primary problem is that your brain has its activity stuck in the wrong area.  You overcome the feeling, by moving the activity to a different part of the brain.  You act differently, which makes you think differently, and then finally you feel things differently.

Rather than try to juggle multiple unknown scary variables, use “distributed cognition” to offload the lists out of your head.  In other words, write it down.

Make a List of Scenarios

First, what are all the doomsday scenarios?

Jean faced a multitude, but we were able to group them into two categories of doom — in one, the “Angry Mob” scenario, all her allies would show up and be uncontrollably aggressive to the senior leaders, alienating them.  In the other, the “Crickets” scenario, none of her allies would show up and she wouldn’t be able to persuade the senior leaders that there was even a problem.

By focusing on “making a list” instead of “solving the unsolvable” we shifted Jean’s brain into a task she could actually perform.

So, when you feel overwhelmed and other techniques don’t work — do a brain dump. Write down the major doomsday scenarios you’re dreading.  Give each scenario a nickname, like “Angry Mob” for easier reference later.

Make a List of Goals

Next, remind yourself of the positive goals you have for this topic, or meeting, or relationship, or whatever it is.  Write down all the positive things you want to get.

For Jean, that consisted of several things:

  • Inform the senior leaders of the reality and seriousness of the problems
  • Position herself in the eyes of those senior people as someone who could help solve the problems
  • Maintain her credibility with her allies as someone who could help them solve the problems

The nicknames here are “Inform Leaders,” “Position Self” and “Maintain Credibility with Allies.”

So, when you feel overwhelmed, after you list your scenarios, also list your major goals.

Make a Matrix of Goals in Scenarios

By now your brain is calming because you’ve gotten out of “juggle multiple unknown scary variables” mode and into “make lists” mode.

Next, you make a grid, with as many columns as you have scenarios, plus one, and as many rows as you have goals, plus one.

In the top row, start in the second cell and write each scenario nickname, one per cell.

In the left column, start in the second row and write each goal nickname, one per cell.

Here’s Jean’s matrix:

Angry MobCrickets
Inform Leaders
Position Self
Maintain Credibility with Allies

Now you’re ready to get creative — something you were utterly unable to do just 30 minutes earlier.

In Each Cell, Write Something

In each cell, write down some ideas on how you might maybe go about meeting that goal if you find yourself in that scenario.

A couple things will now happen.

  • One is, you’ll uncover another scenario, and need to add a column.  Go ahead.
  • Two is, you’ll remember another major goal and need to add a row.  Go ahead.
  • Three is, each cell will remind you of something you could maybe do to prepare for the scenario.  So, in the cell, just write down what those things are.

Consider two ways Jean could “Inform Leaders” in the two major scenarios.

If her allies start acting as an Angry Mob, the senior leaders might get offended or even alarmed.  Jean’s preparation step here is to meet with all the allies who are attending, 30 minutes before the meeting, and go over ground rules for their behavior.  She’ll also place her most influential and respected ally at the door to catch late arrivals and brief them on the ground rules.  She’ll bring a sign-up sheet and have the most passionate people agree which of the group’s 5 major points each one will make, so they don’t duplicate their efforts.  The orderly and passionate words of her allies will do the work of Informing the Leaders.

If her allies don’t even show up, Jean has a whole different problem.  She’ll want to bring in her evidence, the emails that document the seriousness of the problems.  They’re lengthy, so she should write up a one-page summary.  And she should bring copies of the summary page to hand out.

How It Played Out

Once I had Jean on track filling in cells, I left her alone.  Next day she called me, euphoric in her total victory.

“It went perfectly!  After we got off the phone, I wrote like I was possessed for two hours.  That gave me my preparation checklist, and I spent another two hours getting the materials together and briefing my allies.  Then I slept like a baby that night,” Jean said.

“It gets better,” Jean continued.  “My allies were well behaved, the senior leaders were very receptive, and at the end, they said they wanted to put me on the board with them as a formal representative of my allies — we had no idea there was even an open seat.  Total victory.”

Next time your mind is whirling and you feel overwhelmed, try this out.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to

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