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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Fear of overwhelm: another facette of fear of uncertainty?

It’s well and truly the Autumn in the UK and this could be a busy period for you as projects start to pick up momentum again.

Things have certainly been getting busier in the past couple of months with the coaching practice.

In the past, I could operate like a machine to get work done. In fact, a couple of bosses asked me to be less efficient! Productivity was never an issue.

But as a recovering overachiever who deliberately took time out to slow down, I’m very sensitive to overactivity these days and try to protect my headspace and heart-space because that enables me to do my best work.

So when an exciting project or opportunity presents itself, I check in with my intuition and scan for any whiff of a fear of overwhelm.

I’ve had a few conversations recently on this theme which inspired me to think about it in more depth.

The people I work with tend to be super-competent and super-efficient in their organisations and can have many demands placed on them.

This isn’t a bad thing in itself, as long as the work is done out of choice and that checks and balances exist to protect them from burnout.

But most of those I work with are stepping into leadership and /or setting up their own venture, and the checks and balances can suddenly disappear as they become the boss…

So a transformation in decision-making needs to happen around energy allocation. It becomes necessary to be more executive-like which can be challenging for professionals and technical experts. Crucially, becoming a good boss to themselves enables them to be a good boss to others.

A few thoughts on fear of overwhelm that I’ve found useful in staying balanced whilst keeping momentum:

It’s important to differentiate between overwhelm and fear of overwhelm.

If you’re in overwhelm you have at least two choices:

  1. If your activity levels are frantic, slow down and take time out to regroup and think more clearly. Time management is a misnomer: it’s all about decision management.

  1. If you’re paralysed by the number of tasks on your to do list, start somewhere and do something. Physical activity of any kind, connecting with others for the pleasure of it (rather than as an outlet for your frustration) and changing environment can help to shift you out of the paralysis.

If you’re experiencing fear of overwhelm, then you’ve entered psychological time (see the Wise Wednesdays dedicated to this) and you need to get yourself back to the present.

As discussed previously, fear-setting can help.

Essentially, it involves: 1) identifying the fear clearly (including the worst case scenario); and 2) putting in place a plan to mitigate the potential negative consequences. This will calm down your amygdala/mammalian brain and get you back to processing what’s actually happening in the present moment.

For example, if you’re worried about working compulsively and unwittingly running into burnout, how can you build in breaks, check ins and a support system? This could be as simple as planning a holiday at the end of a project and daily exercise with a buddy.

Dealing with fear of overwhelm on a more fundamental level, especially if it’s a pattern, requires inner-work. It can be the result of past experiences that were unfinished or unprocessed.

For example, if you went through periods of emotional overwhelm as a result of excessive demands that were placed on you at some stage in your life and you didn’t have a framework for resolving the situation, it will have left you with a red flag. The red flag is useful but it can be a blunt and indiscriminate instrument.

The good news here is that your superego is trying to protect you (in its own clumsy and dogmatic way, treating everything as black or white).

Of course, if your intuition is telling you that something is not such a great idea, pay close attention to it as your intuition is right. However, if it’s a generic fear feeling, then it merits some investigation before a decision. [see video on distinguishing fear and intuition which are usually both lumped under “gut feeling”].

While it’s not possible to give a formula for resolving this, a few basic principles might help:

  • almost all fear we experience is fear of discomfort in the future based on past experience. Nothing is happening right now

  • when our basic needs aren’t fully met, these fears are magnified (in survival mode, everything can seem a threat). Check in using HALT (are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?) before entertaining any thoughts thrown up by the fear of overwhelm

  • the fear may carry some wisdom within in (how can you prevent history from repeating itself? (see fear-setting above or the Wise Wednesdays on this)

  • creating headspace on a daily basis to check in with yourself can prevent any compulsive action that will lead you to burnout.

Fear of overwhelm is linked to fear of uncertainty. A younger part of us feels that once we take something on, we’re locked in. It creates a terrible sense of helplessness and can stop us from engaging in great opportunities.

So perhaps the best antidote to fear of overwhelm is a combination of embracing uncertainty; trusting that you have the intelligence to work things out as they come up; and exercising your freedom to make decisions moment-to-moment.

Have a great week,


p.s. I’m excited to share a few speaking events I’ll be doing that may be relevant to you to transform your career, find balance and make a difference. It would be great to see you there!

AUTUMN 2017 SPEAKING EVENTS: Join in if any of these are relevant to you!

Thursday 21st September 11.45-12.45: Public Health Alternative Careers [panel for PH specialists], Senate House, London.

Wednesday 27th of September 8 - 9pm: “Break Through Career Confusion and Transform Your Life” [webinar for doctors]. Sign up here.

Monday 16th October at 8pm - 9:30pm: “Overcome career confusion and step into leadership: insights from medicine, public health and international policy.” Goodenough College Port Talk [for GC members and alumni]. Register on The Square.

Monday 27th of November 1.30 to 4.30pm: “Boosting Your Research Through a Creativity Strategy” [for UCL research staff]. Look out for announcements from Organisational Development.

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