How to Turn Overwhelming Circumstances Upside Down

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

Microsoft Word provides me with four definitions of the word overwhelm: 1. overpower somebody emotionally, 2. provide somebody with a huge amount, 3. overcome somebody physically, and 4. surge over somebody or something. A quick online search reveals the original meaning, dating back to the 14th century, was “to turn upside down, to overthrow,” which I much prefer, as it implies conquest and action.

The people with whom I meet use this word to describe how they are feeling fairly frequently. It seems fitting to describe the torrent of information in need of processing, the tasks to be identified and completed, the continuous attempts to balance work and family, and all of the people to be kept happy as overwhelming. As the holidays rapidly approach these factors seem amplified.

We all want our holiday experience to be as perfect as possible. Connecting with relatives, giving and receiving gifts, eating a lot of good food and recognizing traditions is what makes this time of year special. We also know perfection is generally not possible. When our long list of things to do becomes lengthier, the likelihood that something will be overlooked increases. We need not be overthrown or turned upside down, however. We can stand tall, embrace imperfection, and soldier on.

The fact is, you can think only about one thing at a time. Divided attention is inattention. The state of feeling overwhelmed, if not by definition then by experience, involves thinking about everything at once, which would overwhelm anybody. Concentrating upon only that which is in front of us is calming. Maintaining awareness of time, priorities and surroundings is important, ideally existing as a sort of peripheral vision or sixth sense. Cultivating that awareness is a lifelong process.

When you are confronted with a lengthy list of errands, chores, busy work and projects, try to consider only that which is next on the list. If necessary, block out the rest of the list, concealing it from view. If you can only do one thing at a time, why look at more than one? Pondering over pages of tasks can result in paralysis. Initiating and completing each discrete item feels better.

Do not be turned upside down this Holiday Season. Overthrow overwhelming circumstances one step at a time. Conquering chaos is made manageable by artfully dodging or skillfully catching what is thrown our way, juggling what we catch by keeping our eyes on each object that lands in our hands, and passing some stuff to the people close to us when we need an extra hand.