This is part 8 of a 10-part series on Managing Overwhelm. You can read the earlier posts there.
This week's post goes into an incredibly important piece that is often overlooked in terms of productivity. I would go as far as to say that it’s a full on blind spot in our culture! Some of my brightest and most self-aware clients still get breakthroughs around this topic.
In fact, if you're only going to read one post in this series, I'd say read this one simply because, while lots of what I've said in the series does get talked about elsewhere, this topic gets a lot less attention and is potentially the most powerful. So what is this much neglected topic?
Your emotional load.
In my experience, paying attention to this is a crucial piece in overcoming overwhelm, managing neurodivergence and actually thriving as a human, whatever your starting point is.
We know from studies that it’s not hard work that leads to burnout, it’s the conditions in which the hard work takes place which really make the difference. So if you have a lot of autonomy, a sense of purpose and feel supported in - and recognised for - your efforts, then you can keep going for a long time without suffering the effects of burnout. But take away any of these factors and even moderately hard work becomes severely draining.
An often-overlooked dimension of overwhelm is the backlog of emotional tension drawing your attention away from the task at hand and making it difficult to function, focus and make decisions on a day-to-day level.
Emotions distract us from the present moment, because they take evolutionary priority.
When there are strong feelings around, your brain will divert energy and electricity away from your pre-frontal cortex (the “thinking” brain) towards the emotional centres.
If you have inexplicable tiredness (and know that your iron levels are fine!) consider that this may be a symptom of emotional backlog redirecting energy towards the recovery process..
Emotions have a signalling function. They are a way of communicating your state to the people around you, so they can respond appropriately.
Emotions also play a major role in integrating experience. The emotional centres do a lot of processing, making sense of and joining up the sensory input we receive so that we can respond in a coherent way.
Emotions also have a hygiene function: crying, laughing, raging, shaking, sweating and yawning are all ways we release tension from the body and recover from upset. Your body knows that this is the most important thing for you to do, so it shuts down everything else til it’s done.
This is what I mean about emotions being a superpower: they flush stress from your body, allow you to make sense of - and learn from - complex and challenging experiences and then share that intelligence with the people around you.
The fact that rational thought is less available at moments of heightened feeling is seen as a weakness of emotionality in our hyper-rational culture. This perception comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the hierarchy of the brain and the function of emotions in our well-designed biological systems.
To put it simply, in order for your rational, thinking brain to do its job, your emotional brain needs to have completed its work first.
An emotionally-flooded brain is indeed a poor judge of a situation, and this has been used as evidence that emotions are inherently unhelpful. This is the huge cultural misunderstanding we are struggling with. The reason an emotionally flooded brain can't make good judgements is because your thinking brain can’t do a good job until the emotional brain has finished its crucial task of processing the stress.
Think of the whole process of dealing with something upsetting and then deciding what to do as a work of art. Step into anyone’s studio halfway through a creative process and you’ll often see a lot of mess! The emotional process is a bit like this messy stage of making art. It's not the finished product, but it's essential to creating the finished product.
Your body knows this, and literally prioritises resources at a physiological level to enable this to happen. It does this by shutting down blood flow and electrical power to the pre-frontal cortex (your “rational thinking brain”) until your emotional brain is done processing.
This is why, when you’re upset, grieving, frightened or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed, it can be very difficult to think about the practical dimensions of life.
Where are my keys? What shall I have for dinner? Which project needs my attention first?
So, while your emotional process is crucial to your wellbeing, you need to know that your capacity for decision-making and rational thought is deliberately offline at these times. Intuition is a wonderful thing, but should be handled with care if you are full of feelings!
Instead of pushing through when you notice this happening, you can use heightened emotions as a lovely way-marker to indicate that your emotional brain is up to something important and needs some space to do its thing.
Not only are you unlikely to be very productive in an emotionally activated state, you also can’t really trust your thinking to be very accurate if you are dysregulated (scared, angry, wobbly etc.) We’ve all made bad decisions in the heat of the moment, and many relationships have been destroyed unnecessarily - even unintentionally - by acting on this kind of thinking.
So while you should step back from trying to do anything and create space for whatever you’re feeling when you get flooded with emotion, it doesn’t mean you need to buy into the thought process which accompanies the feelings.
Where this principle gets even more interesting for neurodiverse folk is that there is usually a backlog of stressful experiences in the system which relate to many of the usual tasks of day-to-day life.
If you’ve found it hard to be organised, handle numbers, make decisions etc. in the past and this has been dealt with unkindly by those around you, even thinking about doing these things can send your brain back to the original upset of those earlier experiences. Now your emotional brain is on duty, and the thinking brain has gone to sleep ‘til the process is done with.
You may not even be consciously aware of this happening but you will notice that you get agitated, find it hard to concentrate, or make bad decisions in the moment. You may attribute this directly to impairments related to your neurotype, and it can be tempting to see this as evidence of your fundamental limitations. "See? Every time I try to do X my brain goes to sleep / I end up doing (insert self-sabotaging behaviour) or Y (insert bad thing) happens."
A more accurate narrative of what’s happening is that you’re experiencing an amplification of your underlying neurotype because of held stress in your system and an incomplete emotional recovery process.
In other words, there may be things which you find more difficult because of the way your brain is wired, but they are rendered impossible because you have been taught to experience stress, shame and distress in response to trying to do these things.
And what happens when you are stressed and upset? The very part of your brain which already struggles (the pre-frontal cortex or “thinking” brain is responsible for all the “executive function” processes which autistics and folks with ADHD, Dyslexia struggle with) is rendered completely offline!
Again, rather than pushing through and trying to succeed by sheer force of will, the more efficient, effective and - counter-intuitively - less painful route is to make space to feel those feelings, because they have a job to do. Once those feelings clear, your thinking will be waaay more effective than it was before and you may surprise yourself with what you’re capable of doing.
An example of this was with a client I was working with recently, who identifies as dyscalculic (struggles to process and handle numbers). She described wanting to fall asleep, getting panicked, scrambled and other avoidant behaviours in relation to managing her domestic finances and two businesses.
We took some time to explore these feelings, tracing them back to earlier times when she felt overwhelmed at school and had zero support or recognition for her struggles. She also engaged in some hypnotherapy, again focussing on emotional regulation and wellbeing. (Hypnotherapy deals directly with the emotional brain). She has since reported that she’s doing her numbers “every day”, something that felt impossible when we set out.
There are many ways to stay “regular” in the emotional department and thinking well about your life and work.
Any space where you can listen in to what you are feeling on a physical and emotional level is going to be supportive around this. So a good therapist who can allow space for this (not just analysing but feeling your way through your life experiences). Any kind of somatic work. Journalling. Confiding in a friend. And just allowing yourself to feel what you’re feeling in a supportive way. Music, films, and funny/sad YouTube videos can all be great emotional laxatives, whether they make you laugh or cry!
I particularly like co-counselling (I do this in a format called “Listening Partnerships”) because it’s free, mutual and you can really guide your own process.Instead of carrying around tension and worry all day, I have regular times in the week where I buddy up with someone else and take turns to listen warmly (and offer no opinions or feedback, just encouragement) while the other offloads their worries, fears and upsets about the past days, weeks, months or years, or things that are coming up in the future. Even five minutes of this can make the whole day go better.
You can also use this somatic self-soothing audio to connect with and release emotional tension in your body. It’s especially helpful if upset is likely to keep you awake at night, but can be useful at any time of day.
In short, you shouldn’t rely on your emotions to make decisions and get things done. If you’re neurodivergent, don’t underestimate the impact that lingering emotional stress is having on your capacity - and if you’re struggling to make decisions and get things done, make time for your emotions.
An invitation today is to do something to look after your emotional hygiene:
Find someone to do a Listening Partnership swap with regularly (check or post in this FB group to find someone to buddy up with)
Book some sessions with a therapist or counsellor you like
Listen to the Self-Soothing Audio
Watch your favourite weepy or funny video