How to reduce your overwhelm and keep performing in these turbulent times

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

“When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor E. Frankl

Over Christmas, I stayed in Benalla in north-east Victoria, where I grew up, and watched from afar as raging bushfires wreaked havoc on so many communities, wildlife and landscapes. I was shell-shocked. It was all totally overwhelming. I remember feeling powerless, anxious, concerned, angry, guilty – how do you say Happy New Year when so many are under threat, suffering and traumatised?

I was obsessed with twitter, I couldn’t stop following the feed and checking Facebook for updates, I was listening to the radio and watching the live TV footage. On social media it just seemed so many people were scared, angry and outraged, vitriolic, pointing the finger, blaming, abusing. There were lots of understandably negative emotions swirling around.

We had my Dad’s godson come to stay after he was evacuated from Wandiligong and he spent an anxious few nights closely monitoring the news to see if he would have a home and community to go back to. The air was smokey but not a patch on the toxic air Dad’s godson would confront when he returned home. I heard a close friend at Corryong was under threat and that he had saved his house, but all his farm was burned.

As I sat out in Dad’s beautiful garden one evening, I finally took a breath and checked in to become conscious of how I was feeling rather than being in reactive and robot mode. I was also trying to make sense of the reactions I was seeing from others on social media. What was going on there? It was then that I remembered something I’d learnt a long time ago that I’m sure many of you have seen before. It helped me understand what I was observing in others and myself, find a better headspace to be in, feel more hopeful and take positive action.

This model was the great Stephen Covey’s Circles of Control and Concern and the concept that what you focus on expands. Some people also add a Circle of Influence which reflected the type of problems we face.

  • Circle of Direct Control: about problems involving our own behaviour

  • Circle of Indirect Control (Influence): about problems involving other people’s behaviour

  • Circle of No Control (Concern): about problems we can do nothing about eg our past, or situational realities

Personal disruption is a key interest of mine. For higher performance there are many opportunities for us to get ourselves off autopilot and develop the habit of choosing our response rather than simply being in reactive mode. The key skills here are self-awareness, emotional courage and being able to pause in the moment before taking action.

When we are working in our Circle of Concern we have a reactive focus, we are being acted upon and we empower the things within that circle to control us. As Covey says,

“As long as we focus our efforts, attention and energy on those things, we accomplish nothing except to reinforce our own feelings of inadequacy and helplessness.”

When you’re operating in your circle of concern your circle of control shrinks so you feel very disempowered. When we go into this mode, the neuroscience tells us that our brains don’t operate at their best – we go into our amygdala (our reptile brain) and we’re in flight, fight, freeze or appease – what I was seeing on twitter was a lot of people in fight mode.

These are just some of the things I was focusing my time, thoughts, energy and attention on:

When you’re being reactive, you’re focusing your efforts in your Circle of Concern. This results in negative energy, as well as neglecting things you could actually do something about, which causes your Circle of Control to shrink. You can recognise when you’re in this circle by being more self-aware. Are you focused on the weaknesses of others and circumstances over which you have no control? Are you blaming, accusing, using reactive language and being the victim?

My feelings were overwhelm, disempowerment, disbelief, anger, guilt, blame, concern etc. And what you focus on expands. I wasn’t in action at all, I was sitting around in thoughts and fears operating in my Circle of Concern. I could see this playing out on social media in how a lot of the conversations were going.

When you’re being proactive, you’re operating in your Circle of Control and you work on the things you can do something about. This results in positive energy which results in your Circle of Control enlarging. You have less brain space, time and energy to focus on things you can’t do anything about.

By remembering the Circles of Control model, I was able to disrupt myself and get out of reactive mode. It all happened in a moment. My thinking changed from my brain going around in circles contemplating all the issues above to asking myself proactive questions – What is MY response here? What am I going to do? How can I show initiative in this situation? What is within MY control? What sort of person do I want to be in this situation? What will MY behaviour be?

The thoughts now occupying my mind were now around the options I had and the actions I could take such as:

I had a women’s well-being workshop scheduled for mid-January but I hadn’t promoted it because it didn’t feel right to do that when so many people’s worlds were being turned upside down. When I remembered this tool and this mode of thinking I thought,

“Well, I could turn this workshop into a fundraiser to raise money for the Red Cross and also create a positive space and bring women together to focus in on what they can control ie their self-care and well-being

and then I felt clear. I was filled with purpose, I started taking action, I got to work rather than sitting on the sidelines being reactive and doing nothing.

I’m pleased to say that I ran two “Self-Care Staycation” workshops on Friday 17th January and 60 women came along. We raised $4,160 for the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund.

The great thing was that there was a win-win here – women were donating to the Red Cross to support its work and they also felt like they were taking action and making a contribution. And the women who attended were able to take something away with them - great conversations, increased connections and actions around their self-care and well-being. So, the whole event was about operating in our Circle of Control at a personal and collective level.

I also wanted to operate in my Circle of Influence – by running the workshops I might be able to influence the state of the women who came along – put them in a more proactive frame of mind. The research shows us that happier people are higher performing – we think better and perform better and connect better when we look after our well-being. If these workshops were able to support the participants to lead the way by looking after their well-being and operating more within their Circle of Control there’s a ripple effect…this action has a positive effect on participants, their families, their workplaces, communities and the world.

So when you feel overwhelm, whether it be from the challenging climatic conditions we’ve been facing with drought and fires, something happening in your workplace or at home, do you usually operate out of your Circle of Control or Concern? A positive brain hack you can try to shift you out of your amygdala and into your pre-frontal cortex (the higher functioning part of the brain) is to think of these circles.

The process I recommend is to:

1. Write down everything that is occupying your mind.

2. Draw the circles and then put each issue into one of the circles.

3. Then consider, are you operating in a proactive or reactive space?

4. If you are in a reactive space with the majority of your thoughts being in the Circle of Concern, how can you increase number of ideas in the inner Circle of Control?

5. Ask yourself these proactive questions: What is MY response here? What am I going to do? How can I show initiative in this situation? What is within MY control? What sort of person do I want to be in this situation? What will MY behaviour be?

6. Which ones of these can you act upon?

7. What is the first step you will take?

What opportunities are there for you to disrupt yourself? What would be different for you if you operated in a proactive way rather than a reactive way more often? Who else would benefit if you did this? What will the consequences be of doing nothing?