ME/CFS and 6 Steps to Dealing with Overwhelm

Because our energy is limited the demands on it will often exceed its supply. Sometimes this feeling of just not having enough to go around can be overwhelming. Whether it’s because others are still expecting too much of us, or because we expect too much of ourselves, having a sense that there is more that needs doing than you could possible find the time and energy for, can be really stressful. This stress is damaging enough in itself but if it also pushes us to ignore our limits and do too much, it can damage us in other ways too, perhaps even permanently. Dealing with overwhelm is something we all need to get good at.

Step 1 Step Away

My first response to feeling overwhelmed is to remove myself from the situation and pay attention to some active relaxation. If I am in the middle of something, I make myself take a break and leave it behind me for a little while. I focus on my breathing and do something to relax and distract me. I tell myself that nothing is more important that my health and I won’t be healthy if I don’t stay relaxed. At this stage I can be tempted to procrastinate: to continue to distract myself and try to ignore the problem. I know that this doesn’t work though because the feeling of overwhelm just starts building up again in the background. In fact, by trying to ignore the problem I often allow it to reach ridiculous proportions. I can start to believe that the amount of stuff that I need to be doing is way bigger than it actually is.

Step 2. Make a List

After taking a breather it’s important to face the issue again but in a calm and practical manner. I make sure I write down everything I can possible think of that I feel I need to do and am concerned about the consequences if it doesn’t get done. Sometimes just writing this list is reassuring because I realise actually there’s not as much on it as I thought there would be. Other times the list is still way too long to be reassuring. When my energy is really low, I make sure I put every that I need to do to take care of myself on the list. Again, I remind myself that nothing is more important than my health and that if I let it get worse I’ll be able to do even less.

Step 3. The Cull

I take a good hard look at the list and decide what I can let go of. On bad days this might be everything that isn’t to do with looking after myself! Sometimes I even have to let go of some of the self-help stuff and just give myself permission to take it as easy as I need to. If I want to avoid stress, I will still need to deal with all the other stuff at some time, but I give myself permission to let go of it for now. I then make sure that I tick things off my ‘looking after myself’ list as I do them, so I can show myself that I am actually achieving important things!

Step 4. Reassessing Importance

When I have a little more energy than I need for just self-care, I set to organising the list. Personally, I am more likely to get overwhelmed when I’m doing quite well because it’s then that I’m most likely to fall into the trap of expecting too much of myself.  I split my list into 4 sections: Essential/important/preferable but not important/not important at all. This is a bit of a skill in itself because we often think things are more important than they are. I do my best to move as many things as possible into the ‘not important at all’ list for another cull! Then I prioritise each thing in the other 3 lists making sure that all big things are broken down into their baby steps. Be careful to prioritise in terms of importance and not just urgency! Some things can seem really important just because they are quite urgent, but often they may not be as important as some of the other stuff that doesn’t seem so pressing (like looking after our health!). Also, sometimes I think things need doing soon when actually, I just want things to be done soon and it wouldn’t be that big a deal if they weren’t. Not everything can be put off for ever, but many things don’t have the urgency that we often think that they do. Again, I ask myself whether I would rather get that done early and be less well than I am now or whether it would be better to give myself more time and feel better.

Step 5. Ask for help.

Next I think about what I could ask others to do for me and what I need to communicate to stop others from expecting too much from me. This was very hard for me to do at first but I soon learned how rewarding it is to allow people to care for you when that’s what they want to do.

Step 6. Steady Paced ActionME/CFS and 6 steps to dealing with overwhelm

Finally, I allow myself to take on the list in a relaxed effortless manner, one baby step at a time. I make sure I pace myself with lots of rests and alternate tasks with different kinds of demands. I cross each one off as I do it to give me a sense of achievement and I make sure that I’m valuing what I am doing to look after myself. I usually find that I can get way more than I expected done if I can take the pressure off like this.

Do you have any other tips on how to deal with overwhelm?

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4 thoughts on “ME/CFS and 6 Steps to Dealing with Overwhelm”

  1. I found this really useful to read! I frequently find myself feeling overwhelmed and although I know all of the things you have mentioned help I often forget them in the moment. This has served as a great reminder and I will definitely try to draw on it next time it’s all feeling a bit too much.
    Thank you!


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