An overwhelmed brain is not an effective brain. HRM looks at how it can hurt our work and what to do about it.
Being overwhelmed is, unfortunately, a common feeling for a lot of people, especially in the era of COVID-19 and remote work.
Most of the time we deal with it or do our best to push it aside and carry on as usual. But being overwhelmed can impact our brains in ways you might not know about.
When we’re overwhelmed our brains are in the wrong gear to effectively make decisions, think clearly or come up with creative or novel solutions to problems.
HRM dives into what’s happening in our brains when we are overwhelmed and how we can get our minds back on track.
What’s happening when we’re overwhelmed?
Being overwhelmed is a fight, flight or freeze response to a situation.
Animal brains run on reflexes and automated responses to danger – it’s how they survive in the wild. Humans are no different.
When we’re overwhelmed our brain engages those reflexes and falls back on the evolutionary programming that humans have used since hunter-gatherer times.
This programming causes a few things to happen:
- Our brain stem (colloquially called our reptilian brain) pumps us with adrenaline to face or run from whatever has put us in danger.
- Our limbic system (the part of our brain that includes the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala) floods our emotions to put us in a state of high alert.
- Our frontal lobe (our neocortex) sparks so we can respond quickly to situations, but it hampers our ability to analyse what’s happening.
While this might seem helpful if we’re facing a deadly threat, it’s not so helpful when our email inbox is overflowing or we’re edging closer to a deadline.
Technology has rapidly evolved over the years but our brains haven’t, so it doesn’t know how to differentiate a stressful deadline from a lion attack.
While this is a completely natural response to a perceived threat, it could be harming our ability to work effectively. Here are a few examples of how.
1. We stop utilising our unconscious mind
When we’re overwhelmed, we often try to force ourselves to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand.
But, according to Dr Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist and researcher turned author, we could be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring our unconscious mind.
“In productivity or hustle culture, there is a lot of emphasis on being focused and undistracted,” says Boyes, who also wrote on this topic for Harvard Business Review.
“However, our default mode network (DMN), which is the part of the brain that’s active when we let our minds wander, is also good at coming up with solutions to problems, having ideas and seeing threads and patterns.”
Our DMN is the area you’re using when you tune out on your morning commute and find yourself at work without really remembering how you got there. This area is commonly related to memory and imagination. It’s also good at ideation, so it can be helpful for creative thinking.
Taking a walk or having a shower are also good ways to engage your unconscious mind. However, the trick is to not let those great ideas slip away.
“I try to linger in bed for five minutes or so when I wake up,” says Boyes. “I often have good ideas in that period, therefore, I know to be prepared for that.”
“We have experiences of success and what helped us achieve that [in the past] and when we get overwhelmed, we double down on that.” Dr Alice Boyes, author, researcher and former clinical psychologist.
2. You let your dominant personality take over
Because we often respond to overwhelm by flicking back into our automatic responses, this can trigger our brains into amplifying our more dominant characteristics.
“When people are overwhelmed they become less flexible to match their responses and behaviours to the characteristics of the situation,” says Boyes.
“We have experiences of success and what helped us achieve that [in the past] and when we get overwhelmed, we double down on that.”
For example, someone who is usually a nitpicker might respond to feeling overwhelmed by micromanaging others or become extra demanding. Or a headstrong, stubborn leader could accidentally snap at their coworkers.
To overcome this, Boyes suggests being more aware of your emotions and how you tend to react to the situation.
“Identify which specific emotion you’re feeling. Then you look for patterns in how you behave, think, and especially how you interact with others when you’re feeling those emotions.”
3. You start thinking you’re weak
There are a variety of reasons we become overwhelmed at work. Maybe we’re unfamiliar with the task. Maybe we have a lot of people relying on us. Perhaps our mental health isn’t in the best state.
Unfortunately, we sometimes treat our own reaction as a weakness. We look at colleagues and think, ‘They have it together, why don’t I?’ It’s the classic case of imposter syndrome.
This won’t help you, says Boyes. For some, the shame we associate with being overwhelmed leads us to procrastinate and then feel more overwhelmed when we haven’t got the task done.
For others, thinking they’re weak leads them to add more to their plate.
“People sometimes fear that their weakness will eventually become obvious to others and they need to defend against that. Usually people become extra perfectionistic when they fear their weaknesses will eventually be revealed.
“For example, [they feel] they’re only ‘safe’ if they get the top mark in their class. If they’re in, say, the top half, that’s not good enough.”
We can break these unhealthy cycles by acknowledging our feelings.
“State the specific emotions you’re feeling, without exaggerating them. Say outloud to yourself, ‘I feel overwhelmed and anxious’ followed by your plan for how you’ll act.”
You can also practice compassionate self talk. Boyes has written previously about this topic and says not only can it help with the feeling of being overwhelmed, it can also make you more resilient in the long run.
“Self-compassion improves people’s participation in groups and is associated with a more adaptive attitude to failure,” says Boyes in her Harvard Business Review article.
“People who are self-compassionate recover better from psychological knocks, like relationship breakups and career setbacks.”
“People sometimes fear that their weakness will eventually become obvious to others and they need to defend against that.” Dr Alice Boyes, author, researcher and former clinical psychologist.
4. You make bad decisions
Another side effect of being overwhelmed is pushing aside important decisions.
Part of this can be due to decision fatigue, which means we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to tackle whatever the issue is and instead choose to ignore it.
Similar to reverting to our dominant personality, this can also lead us to fall back on what Boyes calls “decision-making biases”. This could mean choosing the option with an immediate benefit without weighing the long-term options or impacts, or defaulting to the easiest option even if it’s not the best one.
To tackle this, create rules (or heuristics) to help you make better decisions, says Boyes.
“For example, I know I tend to ‘underbuy’, so whenever I am deciding how much to buy, I add 50 per cent. I think I should buy four yogurts, so I buy six,” she says.
“That’s a simple example, but you can create heuristics for all different types of thinking biases, like if you tend to overfocus on what could go wrong, if you tend to overthink before acting, or if you tend to be too picky.”
We’re unlikely to get to a point where our brains don’t ever become overwhelmed. But we can get better at recognising what we lose when we do become overwhelmed, and how we can address that.
By being aware of how being overwhelmed changes our personality, impacts our thinking and harms our decision making, we can create ways to stop it from reducing our effectiveness at work. And perhaps, in time, our brains will learn the difference between an overbearing manager and a bear attack.
Emotional intelligence can help us combat feeling overwhelmed, and it’s also an important skill for HR. Hone your EQ with AHRI’s short course.