All of us experience overwhelm at times, and for many people times like the holiday season can be overfull of things to do—even if most of them are pleasant. When there is too much happening at once, it is hard to focus on what we need to pay attention to, or think and decide what to do. Another phrase for this is “sensory overload.” For instance, when I am following directions while driving to an unfamiliar address, I find that I do much better if I turn the radio off. If I don’t, I begin to have symptoms that are much the same as in those diagnosed with “ADHD.”
So the fundamental problem with overwhelm is that there is too much information to process in a given time frame. This can be because there is too much occurring simultaneously, or because it is being presented too fast sequentially for us to process it well. This “sensory overload” has two main components. One is the actual external sensory input around us in the moment, and the other is the internal input from our own minds. Let’s consider the external input first.
Reducing external input
There are two fundamental ways to reduce external input.
One is to take some kind of practical action in the real world to reduce the input, as I do when I turn off the radio when driving to an unfamiliar address. You can ask others to be quiet so you can listen to one person at a time, or ask them all to be quiet so you can concentrate on reading or homework, turn off the TV, cover your eyes so you can hear better, or leave a chaotic scene altogether, etc.
The other is to learn internal ways to concentrate on certain aspects of what is going on, and reduce or “tune out” one or more senses. Although some people are more skilled at this than others, all of us already know how to do this well in certain contexts. When my wife is working on her computer, she really can’t hear me talk to her unless I am very loud, or touch her at the same time, and even then there is a time delay of several seconds a she refocuses on a mental recording of what I said to her. Many people who grow up in very noisy and chaotic households unconsciously learn to “tune out” these events. In an emergency, we may be oblivious to the pain of serious injuries, because we are so focused on getting out of danger, or helping someone else.
By remembering and reaccessing these kinds of experiences vividly we can realize that we already have many of these skills, and learn to apply them in other situations where they would be useful to us — something that adept hypnotists have been doing for ages. If we examine these experiences carefully, we can even find out what we unconsciously did in our minds that made the skill possible. This can make the skill explicit in a form that it can easily be taught to others.
For instance, you can imagine a tunnel with black surroundings, through which can only see what you are focusing on, like looking through a keyhole. Or you could imagine the same kind of tunnel, but make the surroundings translucent, as if it was thick wavy glass and can only see the general outlines of what is outside the central focus. Or you can “zoom in” on what is relevant, so that it occupies most of your visual field, overlapping and obscuring other events.
If you want to reduce auditory input, you can imagine being in a transparent sound-proof room, and if you want to hear one sound source, you can have headphones to allow you to do that. You could imagine a force-field surrounding you like a heavy curtain that muffles most sound, etc. Recently I was at a small table with four other people. I was talking to the two people opposite me, while the two people next to me were also talking quite loudly to each other. I found that I had an image of the two directions of conversation, sort of lines between the different people speaking. Somehow visualizing these different directions made it easier for me to attend to one conversation and ignore the other.
There may also be a lot going on in your mind during an experience of overwhelm. There are two ways to reduce overwhelm that are almost always useful, no matter what the content, One is to slow down your internal tempo, and allow those events to unfold more slowly. You can do this in whichever of the three main sensory modalities is easiest for you. You could feel the tempo of your bodily movements slow down, you could hear the sound slow down, or you could see the images in your mind slow down—or even use all three simultaneously. When the events are slowed down, the amount of information you have to process decreases significantly, and it will be much easier to process them in whatever way is appropriate.
The other main way to reduce overwhelm is to put some distance between you and those mental events. For instance, if you are inside a large colorful and noisy movie of the events that concern you, your strong feelings will occupy most of your attention, and that will make it very difficult to deal with the events themselves. When you allow all that to recede until it is at a comfortable distance from you, your feelings will become less intense, and you will have more attention to devote to whatever needs to be done. >From this vantage point it will be much easier to deal with the events in the movie. You can scan over the movie and determine which events are truly relevant, and which can be ignored, at least temporarily. It will be easier to focus on one aspect of the movie at a time, breaking down the problem into smaller parts that will be easier to resolve, etc.
One client who complained of overwhelm truly “had a lot on his mind.” He had six simultaneous color movies, each with blaring sound, as if on the inside of a little planetarium dome inside his mind. With all that going on internally, it was impossible for him to focus on any part of it, and he also had little attention left for external events in the moment.
I suggested that he first allow all six movies to slow down somewhat as they receded to a more comfortable distance. When he could see all six movies at a distance, I suggested that he scan them all quickly, and decide which was the most important one to focus on at the moment. Then I suggested that one movie could come somewhat closer to him so that he could see it more clearly, while the other five became silent as they transformed from colorful movies to black and white still images. Those black and white images became icons that indicated the overall content of those other movies, so that he could easily return to any of them when that was appropriate.