Ever faced a challenge so big it fills you with terror? Where the sheer size of the what you have to deal with makes you feel completely overwhelmed?
For a start, you might feel bit of a “brain freeze”. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex (where logic, problem solving, analysis, prioritisation take place) goes off line, and our amygdala fires up the fight, flight, freeze response. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system, and prepares the body to fight or flee by speeding up our breathing, dilating our pupils, tensing our muscles, getting us sweating, interfering with our digestion and increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. This is a great response if you need to run from a sabre tooth tiger – but a little less helpful if you need to give a presentation, sit an exam, or accurately kick a ball.
No matter how well we prepare – sometimes that fight flight reaction will be there. Heck – sometimes you need it to be! It’s important to remember that this is the way that our body responds to big challenges. Sometimes we need to be in top gear – and we just need to learn how to harness that extra power and maintain control.
What Can You Do?
Is this situation a threat? Is it a challenge? Research shows that the way that we appraise a situation influences our fight flight system and how our body responds. If we view things as a challenge then we tend to think that we have the resources to deal with it. That’s not to say that perceiving things as a threat is the opposite, or all bad – sometimes a threat helps us kick into a higher gear, but seeing things as a challenge can help us tap into our capability and perform at our best.
Often when we are preparing for something overwhelming and stressful, we find ourselves thinking about how it could go wrong. We create a disaster move of possibilities of all the bad things that might happen and the various ways we could fail. Again – that’s our fight/flight system kicking into gear. It’s trying to keep us safe and out of harm’s way by preparing us for the worst–case scenarios. We can prepare better by making a choice to spend time imagining how things might go ok, how we might be able to keep our cool in a difficult situation, or even how things might go brilliantly under pressure. Think of it like having the remote control to your mental preparation – scroll past “This is Where it all Goes Wrong” and maybe click onto “Surviving the Storm” or “Conquering Mount Impossible”.
Use Your Body
Despite our best efforts to prepare, sometimes we can still feel overwhelmed. You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by using your body. Slowing down your breathing, and relaxing your muscles is a way of using your body to increase your feeling of safety and allows your frontal cortex to regain control. You can then choose the most reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation.
Take a Different Perspective
Take a big picture approach. What is the overall purpose of this challenge? What does it mean to you? To others? Where are the benefits? Are you making the choice to be here willingly? What are the long-term gains? Tapping into a sense of purpose and digging in to ‘your why’ can lift you out of a problem focused perspective and find a clear path forward.
Bring it Down to Size
What can you control? Sometimes we feel overwhelmed because of the size of the whole challenge. Work out what is the part that you are responsible for and focus on that. Sometimes expectations of ourselves or of others can also magnify the size of the task. Ambitious expectations are fine as long as they are also realistic.
How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time.
Managing overwhelming challenges is about balancing the size of the challenge with your sense of capability. Do what you can to break down the challenge into a smaller more manageable challenges, and tap into patterns of thinking that support your capability. What skills and strengths do you have that you can use? When have you done something well before that relates to what you are facing now, or what have you learned that could be helpful? Foster your supportive inner voice and pay attention to it – it’s the one that tells you that you can do this.