Tip #99 Feeling Overwhelmed

Being overwhelmed is a familiar feeling for most of us. You feel it when there is a lot to do in limited time. You may have multiple projects you are excited about and feel as if you are not making progress with any of them. You often experience it as too much of something (responsibilities, anger, even joy). Your clients may get overwhelmed with the changes they need to make. Or you might notice a client is chronically overwhelmed in several spheres of life, making diet changes more difficult. Staying in a state of feeling overwhelmed is never productive. Feeling inadequate often follows feeling overwhelmed.

Take the first step in faith.
You don’t have to see the whole staircase,
just take the first step.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The way you think about a fact may defeat you before
you ever do anything about it.
You are overcome by the fact because you think you are. 

Norman Vincent Peale

Some synonyms are submerged, engulfed, beaten, flooded, swamped, defeated, conquered. Notice the dual themes of being both vanquished and covered over. No wonder it’s so hard to do anything in those moments. A Chronic feeling of being overwhelmed leads to depression, and depression makes it more likely the person will feel overwhelmed easily. (See Tip #41, When Your Client Is Depressed, in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2)

To get out of feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Acknowledge it.
  2. Take a moment to breath.
  3. Notice that of the things causing the feeling, some are more urgent or important than others.
  4. Notice which elements you have control or influence over and which ones you don’t.
  5. List some things that can be put off for now, or may not even be necessary.
  6. Take deep breaths to help you let go of what you can’t control. Some find prayer useful.
  7. Pick one thing to do right now. Doing one thing at a time is calming and is the most effective way to make progress.

A common complaint I hear from nutrition counselors is that they do not have enough time with each client. This leads to feeling overwhelmed. Acknowledging the time limitations out loud to the client is the first step. When you then negotiate what you will cover, your sense of feeling overwhelmed diminishes. More suggestions are in Tip #43 (in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2) When We Have Little Time, and Tip #21, Time Boundaries in Sessions (in the Practice Workbook, Vol 1).

You also become overwhelmed when you expect too much of yourself. Sorting out what you can and cannot do (Tip #33, in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2) goes a long way toward calming. When the expectations of others are overwhelming, the sorting out can be more complicated. (See Tip #44 for strategies, in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2)

At times in nutrition counseling, you become overwhelmed with your client’s larger problems. It can feel as if you are being asked to do psychotherapy. It may be useful to review the edges between these two types of counseling and make a referral. (See Tip #31, Nutrition Therapy & Psychotherapy: Where are the Edges? (in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2) and Tip #98, Making Referrals.)

Professional burnout is a consequence of being chronically overwhelmed. Check out Tip #22 (in the Practice Workbook, Vol 1) for more ideas on avoiding burnout.

Helping your clients who feel overwhelmed:

One of your most important roles is to guide a client in the steps to get out of feeling overwhelmed. When the client complains of being overwhelmed,reflect it and ask if he would like to address that. “You are overwhelmed right now. Shall we take a look at what you can do?” If the client appears overwhelmed and not aware of it, your reflection brings it forward. “It sounds to me like you are overwhelmed with all your health issues. Might it be useful for us to take a moment to sort them out?”

With the client’s permission, you then ask open-ended questions to support the process of getting out of being overwhelmed. “Let’s take a moment to breathe deeply and become calmer. Now, tell me what you know about the relative importance of each of these health issues.” “Help me see which of these things you can do something about and which you can’t.” “What do we know for sure to be true about this?” (See Tip #50, in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2, for more examples of this line of questioning.)

With this simple guidance, many clients are able to choose a few steps they want to take. You will notice their tone changing toward more confidence. You can then reflect the change talk (Tip #69) you hear and you are back on track. Monitor the client’s confidence to make a specific change or changes by asking scaling questions (Tips #42, in Practice Workbook, Vol. 2, and #76). This will keep the client from slipping back into feeling overwhelmed and show her a process to use to make it less likely in the future.

Some clients will need more support to narrow down and pick a limited number of things to do next. “Most people find that focusing on one change at a time works best. Which feels most doable right now?” or “It sounds like listing all these things going on in your life is overwhelming you again. How about another deep breath? Now remind me which things you have some control over.”

Your job is to pace sessions so as to not overwhelm your clients. One way to do this is to carefully assess readiness for change (Tip #7) and to avoid eliciting resistance (Tip #9).  Both are available in the Practice Workbook, Vol 1.

Some clients struggle with accepting what they cannot change. Tip #12 has ideas on how to support acceptance (in the Practice Workbook, Vol 1).

Finally, reframing (Tip #10, in the Practice Workbook, Vol 1) can shift thinking and loosen up the feeling of being overwhelmed. “It’s just all too much. I can’t do it” can be reframed to “I am someone who wants to do the best I can for my health and right now I can do this one thing.”

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