Breaking Free from Overwhelment
Overwhelment occurs when we experience severe overload to the point where we feel mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually depleted. While the adage that “God never gives us more than we can handle” may hold true, we mortals are experts in setting ourselves up for truly overwhelming situations. That is particularly true for us obsessive-compulsive types!
We all experience periods of overwhelment in our lives. These episodes can be extremely debilitating, particularly when our overwhelment blocks us from effectively dealing with the underlying causes. Learning to effectively deal with overwhelment is an essential component of any recovery program.
Common symptoms accompanying overwhelment include severe depression and anxiety, irritability, loss of sleep, and a grossly deflated sense of self-efficacy, to name a few. Overwhelment that is not effectively addressed may cause us to succumb to feelings of despair and helplessness, which feed into a vicious downward spiral. As our sense of being entrapped in unmanageable circumstances persists, we lose sight of effectively taking care of ourselves in the realms of nutrition, physical exercise, sleep hygiene, reaching out to others for social support, and replenishing our spiritual resources through prayer and meditation. Persistent overwhelment poses a real threat of our sobriety and often provides a perfect excuse for relapse to alcohol and drugs, food addiction, and other harmful activities.
Breaking the Cycle of Overwhelment
Identify the Enemy
The first step in breaking the cycle is identifying what you are up against, focusing on precisely what is making you feel overwhelmed, together with other contributing factors that may be at play. Doing some brainstorming on paper can be very helpful.
As an illustrative example, let us take the case of Evan, an addiction counselor in a governmentally funded agency serving indigent clients. Evan suffers from a heavy overload, working ten- to twelve-hour days, and constantly feeling extremely depleted. While he is committed to helping others suffering from addiction, his job no longer feels rewarding and he dreads coming to work each morning. His overwhelment has spilled over into his family life, as he is constantly battling with his wife over his long hours, and feels increasingly distant from their three children. At home he spends his limited free time in front of the TV before crashing out of sheer exhaustion. He believes he is being assigned a disproportionate share of the most difficult cases and has brought this to his supervisor’s attention on several occasions. The response is always the same: “Evan, you are by far the best counselor I have, and I assign you these cases because you are the only one I can trust to handle them effectively.”
Pray to a Higher Power
I firmly believe that the effectiveness of AA and other Twelve Step programs is in no small way attributable to the program’s steering alcoholics and addicts toward identifying a higher power of their choosing, and developing a personal relationship with that power. While I am not recovering from chemical dependency per se, I have learned to nurture my relationship with a beneficent higher power and turn to that power for counsel, especially when I am feeling overwhelmed.
Apply the Serenity Prayer
As I have stated before, I believe the Serenity Prayer is by far the most powerful stress management tool ever invented. When confronted with an especially challenging situation, I find it helpful to work through the various steps of this prayer on paper. In the “Stress Management” chapter of my book, The Wellness-Recovery Connection (2004), I provide a worksheet for applying the Serenity Prayer to particularly difficult situations.
Returning to our friend Evan, as he attempts to focus on those aspects of his situation he believes he cannot change, he notes that he most definitely refuses to budge from his commitment to doing his very best to help his clients. He also recognizes that he cannot change the reality that his agency is currently underfunded, which results in counselors being spread quite thin in carrying out their responsibilities.
Next he attempts to identify those aspects that he hopefully can change, or at least significantly influence. He realizes that he could, for example, confront his boss with his growing burnout as a result of his routinely being assigned the most difficult cases. Toward remedying that imbalance, he could offer to mentor other counselors on dealing with difficult clients, provided that his caseload is adjusted to allow him to serve effectively as a mentor. He also decides to share with his boss his thoughts concerning how the agency might secure other sources of funding, perhaps in the form of a foundation grant, while also soliciting donations from community residents and local businesses. Back on the home front, he realizes that he must make the time to talk with both his wife and children concerning the stress his workload is placing on all of them, and elicit their support in attempting to turn that situation around.
Defuse the Sense of Overwhelment
When we are feeling overwhelmed we often compound the problem by obsessively running through our heads a series of worst-case scenarios that make the problem appear worse than it actually is.
Years ago in my own therapy I learned a “catastrophic thoughts, rational response” exercise that I often employ to defuse my anxiety in response to highly stressful situations. The first step is to identify the major catastrophic thoughts you are running through your head. For example, in Evan’s predicament he may be obsessing over his fear that his supervisor will think less of him if he confronts him with his overwhelment relating to his current caseload. More specifically, a key underlying catastrophic thought might be, “Oh my God, Ben thinks I am his best counselor. If I confront him with my overwhelment over my current caseload, he will think I am a wimp! He will lose his respect for me and he might even fire me for being an incompetent counselor!”
In this case, appropriate rational responses (RR’s) might include:
n RR #1: “Now wait a minute. Anyone would feel overwhelmed with the unreasonably difficult caseload I have been stuck with. Ben seems to be a fairly rational guy. If I directly share my concerns with him, he will hopefully be amenable to working together to come up with a more equitable resolution. By his own admission I am his best counselor; certainly he will want to work out a reasonable adjustment to allow me to maintain my maximum effectiveness.”
n RR #2: “By confronting Ben with my growing burnout, combined with my high level of dedication to my clients, I just might set the stage for a constructive dialog concerning how I might more effectively utilize my talents on the job. Who knows, he might be receptive to adjusting my caseload to enable me to spend part of my time mentoring other staff on dealing with difficult clients. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!”
Note the upbeat tone that emerges as Evan confronts his catastrophic thinking with empowering rational responses.
Returning again to Evan’s efforts to resolve his predicament, he decides to schedule several sessions with a therapist who taught a course in counseling while he was working toward his certification. Through these sessions he obtains valuable support and constructive feedback on increasing his sense of empowerment and self-efficacy through taking decisive action to counter the sources of his overwhelment.
Take Care of Yourself
As discussed earlier, in freeing ourselves from overwhelment we must make a special effort to take care of ourselves in regard to the physical aspects of wellness, including sound nutrition, regular exercise, and ensuring that we get adequate rest and sleep. As a wise man once said, if you truly believe your body is a temple, do not treat it like a motel!
We also need to focus on being easy on ourselves. Quoting from the Desiderata, “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself” (Ehrmann, 1952). During this trying time we also need to maintain and utilize a healthy support system—it may be a good time to double up on attending Twelve Step meetings—while replenishing our spiritual resources through prayer, meditation, and seeking appropriate spiritual counsel.
As I mentioned at the outset, we all encounter points in our lives where we experience the devastating effects of overwhelment. In these situations we must either take decisive action to reverse this vicious cycle, or resign ourselves to being held hostage by the devastating circumstances we believe are irreversible. Hopefully this column has provided helpful suggestions for both you and your clients in breaking free from overwhelment. Until next time—to your health!
About the Author
John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. You may visit his website www.wellnessandrecovery.com for information on wellness and recovery trainings, wellness coaching by telephone, and program consultation services that he is available to provide.
Ehrmann, M. (1952). Desiderata. Retrieved from http://mwkworks.com/desiderata.html
Newport, J. (2004). The wellness-recovery connection: Charting your pathway to optimal health while recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health