Rather than prioritizing and going to the dentist first, Debra takes a painkiller and then picks the task of lowest importance. After she gets her clothes, Debra will feel just as overwhelmed as before since all of the pressing issues are still there.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back is an illustration of what can happen when you feel overwhelmed. Each straw by itself is irrelevant. Yet, the cumulative weight of enough straw can be unbearable.
Life's events can have the same cumulative impact as the straw. Most situations, by themselves, are manageable. But when you are faced with one problem after another, before you have a chance to resolve each one, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
Situations can also pile up gradually because of your inattention or failure to deal with them as they occur. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you become overwhelmed. In this scenario, you don't realize what's happening until everything becomes a crisis.
So, you can become overwhelmed because of circumstances beyond your control that occur quickly or simultaneously. Or you can become overwhelmed because you neglect to handle situations as they arise. Each scenario requires a slightly different strategy.
When events occur non-stop and without letup, often the first reaction is to panic and freeze. Not knowing what to do first, you try to juggle everything at once while feeling as if you are about to lose your balance at any moment.
The key to dealing with this situation is to prioritize. Since you can only address one issue at a time, you have to decide which circumstances require immediate attention. Sometimes, it seems as if everything is critical. But you, nevertheless, have to pick a starting point for your attention.
Unfortunately, the most critical situation is usually the most difficult to deal with. So, human nature being what it is, people will tend to address one of the least important issues because it's easier. However, when you neglect the most critical situation, it will quickly worsen. With enough neglect, a situation will get to a point where it is out of control and the window of opportunity to take corrective action has passed.
For example, the roof on Debra's house has started to leak. Additionally, her car needs an oil change, the kitchen has to be painted, she needs new clothes for a party in three weeks, her son is doing poorly in school, she has a painful tooth ache, and the company she works for is being sold in six months.
Debra feels overwhelmed. So she goes shopping for her new clothes. Rather than prioritizing and going to the dentist first, Debra takes a painkiller and then picks the task of lowest importance. After she gets her clothes, Debra will feel just as overwhelmed as before since all of the pressing issues are still there.
As an outside observer, it easy to see what Debra should do first. She should tend to her tooth before she risks losing it. If Debra neglects her roof, more serious damage will occur. Then she has to get her son back on track before he falls too far behind. Once these immediate issues are dealt with, Debra will have a little more breathing room and feel less overwhelmed.
But when you are the one feeling overwhelmed, your perspective becomes cloudy. You become stressed out and don't want to deal with anything. Avoidance, however, will allow things to get worse.
When overwhelmed, you have to address the most critical situation first. Then focus your energy on one task at a time. Once you have done everything you can for the most important problem, move on to the next pressing situation. Resist the temptation to begin with the least significant challenge.
When you take this approach, you will start to feel better because you are taking action on the most pressing problems. The more proactive you are, the faster you will overcome the obstacles in front of you.
Bryan is the author of "Dare to Live Without Limits." Contact Bryan at Bryan@columnist.com.