The Cost of Being Overwhelmed


Ever drive somewhere and realize you somehow got there without really paying attention to the road the entire time?  It’s because you’re distracted at least and more likely overwhelmed.

Being overwhelmed hijacks everyone’s executive functioning, denying us presence so that we just go through the motions without much mental attention.  

Modern-day living is to blame largely because we have way too many decisions to make every second of every day. What salad dressing, which TV channel, who to text, what to wear, when to wake up, and 30,000 other things (literally according to Google!)  All the things we should, could, must, or like to get done takes a toll on our brains. Add that to all the things we must think through and do for work, our families, and our friends. Yikes. I know I’m not the only one feeling tired, overwhelmed, and quite frankly, a little cranky.


Everyone is perpetually inundated with info, given way too many choices, and overscheduled with activities. And unfortunately, we are usually moving too fast to even notice the impact or cost. We don’t realize that we missed the joy of the journey in our unyielding commitment to complete the task. Plus, there are real costs – like mistakes made and opportunities missed.

Some are subtle signs like typos, missing links, forgotten attachments, personal items accidentally left behind – which are all annoying but usually and reasonably easy to recover. However, other thoughtless actions can cause real revenue losses such as damage to our reputations or losing a motivated buyer who impatiently moves on.

I’m guilty of it too often, too, even if I know the real cost of being overwhelmed. For example, if I show up at an event or meeting even slightly distracted, I am sure it is visible and contradicts my responsibility to convey calm and confidence.

Plus, who knows how many personal interactions I miss or botch that could have brought someone valuable into my world as a client, contributor, or treasured friend?  Just this week, I spent an entire event seated next to someone who I knew but called her by the wrong name.  Once I realized it after the event, it wasn’t just a moment of embarrassment – it kept part of my brain thrashing about for hours later which in turn prevented a sound night’s sleep.

So how much is overwhelmed costing you?  Probably more than you realize.

When we’re in an overwhelmed state, our brain activity is focused on emotional survival and gives control to the brain stem. This part of our brain controls all our autonomic functions like breathing, heartbeat, and sweating. It is essentially the autopilot management system for our bodies and behaviors. When the brain stem is in control, it removes our need (and ability) to actively think – thus, the famous ‘fight or flight’ knee-jerk reactions – or more commonly, the mindless, ‘go through the motions' state we too often find our overwhelmed selves in. We’ve given up mental control of our caveman-like, brain stem-managed behavior.  Not good…literally, not smart.

Without that intellectual, analytical, and rational capacity, we are prone to making mistakes and bad decisions. We risk putting a ‘foot in our mouth’ by saying something suboptimal that is stupid or insecure. We may even accidentally kick someone else’s confidence with a thoughtless comment, regrettable reaction, or (“ahem”) calling him/her by the wrong name!

Being tired weakens confidence and our ability to control it. 

“Recognizing tired” can help – it reminds us to slow down and perhaps shut up before we make costly missteps with our autopilot actions and words.  It just may save a sale, sustain a relationship and allow you to be a less stressed, healthier person.  Ariana Huffington says we would be physically safer, too, since just as many car accidents happen as a result of tired, distracted drivers than drunk, incapacitated ones.

Equally important is to recognize other people’s overwhelmed states so we can cope better just by realizing that they, too, are likely exhausted and impatient.  If we were 2 years old, we’d throw tantrums.  At least tantrums clearly communicate the child is overwhelmed and needs a time out! Unfortunately, adults aren’t so transparent about their state of mind.  As a result of being overwhelmed, we can regretfully say and do thoughtless things that have real costs to our own and other people’s confidence. So sleep more, don’t sweat small decisions, and try to be more compassionate to yourself and others. And definitely don’t operate heavy objects!

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