Stressed, Overloaded, Overwhelmed

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about stress: What should I do to cope with the load before me?

I am currently up for a promotion at work. I am finishing up my Bachelor’s degree and working full time. However, I am feeling very overwhelmed. I graduate in May so I only have a few more months before I am “free” of school. How do I address this situation with my employer without hindering my advancement opportunity?


Dear Overwhelmed:

You are not alone in feeling overloaded. Why? Because we require too much of ourselves; often we carry a full or over load of courses in our hurry to be “free” of school while working part or as you do work full time in our determination not to be trapped by school debt. In addition, we may have car, credit card and rent payments! That leaves little to no room for exercise or personal life. In short that’s not a way to live and to live long.

There are four four-letter words that determine if you will live happy and long: MOVE, MIND, BOND, and FISH; words I will later explain before I complete a response to your question. And in light of your question, I suspect that you are simply unable to experience what each of these words represents. But first what might you do to better cope with the stress you are experiencing? Please don’t expect any advice to enable you soar like an eagle. By that I mean, no matter how wise are my suggestions, they are no panacea for coping with the overwhelming feeling you now have. However, if followed, hopefully they can enable you to do more than muddle through until you graduate and to be in line for that promotion:

1. Acknowledge that you are swamped. Make some immediate choices, such as accepting that you should not try to be an A student. You have only a few weeks of the semester left and you can graduate without maintaining all assigned necessary to be an A student. Even a couple of Cs in your final semester won’t hurt you. I don’t like to advise students to coast through their last semester, but in your case, I suggest that you can and should cut down on what you require of yourself. You can do this privately and/or inform your classmates that you must do less if you are to stay sane.

2.Meet with you immediate supervisor. Share your goals to continue with this place of employment and your desire to take on more responsibilities after you graduate. When you meet, take with you a list of your current job assignments. Ask for your boss’ advice on how to cope during these next few weeks. Bosses are not enemies. They are there to help you. Hopefully your boss will share your dreams and collaboratively consider ways to lessen your stress. Bring ideas on what you might do to ease the overload you are attempting to carry. Come with ideas about how to cut wasted supplies, time, and money. Possibly, you need to talk realistically with your boss about working fewer hours. If you are in a work group, perhaps your boss will suggest that your group should discuss how they might all might better deal with being overloaded and overwhelmed.

Rather than consider only a short-term fix, now is a time to look in the mirror and ask: What kind of life do I really want? No matter what career goals you have, there are several actions that you can take that will increase the odds you will be happy and live long. They are symbolized by the four words I spelled out in my second paragraph: MOVE, MIND, BOND, and FISH. The word MOVE represents physical activity. What is new knowledge is that physical activity is that it not only affects our bodies, it makes a difference in the size of your brain; it keeps it from shrinking. Kirk Erickson at the University of Pittsburgh has found that the brain responds to physical exercise, particularly the hippocampus, that’s critical for memory formation. So walk. Walking can ease that overwhelming feeling you have. Also exercise your MIND. Obviously, you don’t need more brain challenges because you schooling and job is exercising your brain. But “have to” brain action is not relaxing. You need more playful mind activity such as memorizing a poem you like as you drive to work. Singing. For a few moments search for a piece to fit in a jigsaw puzzle that waits to be complete on a coffee table. Voluntary action, like physical action is good for your mind.

My third four-letter word BOND symbolizes social action. Just as research has demonstrated that physical and mental exercise is good for brain health, so is social action. Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Ulman Lindenberger, has shown that challenging mental activity contributes to cognitive plasticity. He additionally reasons that “Social isolation ; of being on the social perimeter ; is not only unhappy, it is dangerous. For instance, fish on the edge of a group are more likely to be attacked by predatory fish, not because they are the slowest or weakest, but because it is easier to isolate and prey upon those on the social perimeter” and he adds that this “illustrates a more general principle, specifically, that the brain’s perception of social isolation activates neural, neuroendocrine, and behavioural responses that promote short-term self-preservation.”

John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, reasons, “One of most enjoyable daily activities people engage is interacting with others” and is directly correlated with happy and long life. A hug a day is as valuable a maxim as is an apple a day keeps the doctor away. (See Jude Isabella Yes, You Do Have the Power to Ward off Dementia?”

FISH, my last four-letter word, probably seems like a fish out of water, but it has come to symbolize fun at work. When Fish Fly and Fish Tales and film tell the story of the Pike Place World Famous Fish Market in Seattle. Tossing slippery salmon from one employee to another illustrates how we can create fun in the workplace, however unlikely and smelly the place. Focus on the lesson of tossing fish and you have the fourth four-letter word that makes for a balanced joyful life. So, Overwhelmed, this reply to your question recommends a short-term answer to your question and provides a longer sermon on actions that make for a happy life; on that you can start now. Working together with hands head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is not something that happens. It has much to do with what we choose to do and not do.

William Gorden