Check out the links from this post for extra resources and helpful methods for quieting your mind and overcoming “overdrive”.
It’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been trying to sleep for hours, but your thoughts are still racing. You’re trying to concentrate on your work, but you can’t seem to stay focused; you have a million things on your mind.
Does that scenario sound familiar?
Most people go through periods when their brains seem to be in “overdrive”, especially during times of stress.
Is this Going to Pass?
Sometimes when a period of high stress passes, such as when you finish a big project or get through exams, your mind will naturally settle down, too. However, other times it’s harder, especially when the stress is more continuous or if a major life event has unsettled you.
It’s not uncommon to fall into a tiring vicious circle: staying awake with racing thoughts or restless energy; struggling to focus at work and falling behind; getting even more stressed and “wound up” due to your growing to-do list; and finding it harder still to switch off and rest at the end of the day.
Why is Being in “Overdrive” a Problem?
Being in “overdrive” means that your body (and mind) are geared for action all the time, ready to fight or flee; you’re in a perpetual state of physiological arousal. Having your nervous system in a constant state of activation is incredibly wearing on your body. It also means you’re very reactive. When other stressors arise – as they do in the course of everyday life – you won’t have the same resilience and capacity to handle them than if you started out in a more relaxed state. Suddenly minor issues may feel overwhelming and send you into anger, tears or emotional collapse.
In the short term, “overdrive” may be uncomfortable, frustrating and exhausting. In the long term, the picture is bleaker; being perpetually “switched on” is dangerous to your physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing.
How Do You Break the Circle (or Avoid it in the First Place)?
1. Give Yourself Permission to Rest and Reset
When people find themselves in overdrive and struggling to get anything done, they often try harder to focus, or work longer hours to make up for time spent distracted. However, it’s nearly impossible to get back on track without giving yourself the chance to rest and reset. It might feel counterintuitive if you’re already feeling behind, but taking a break could allow you to be more productive in the long run (not to mention provide a boost to your physical and mental health). Resting doesn’t have to mean sleeping, especially if you’re struggling to sleep. It could mean setting aside an hour or two (or a day), when you’re not expecting yourself to accomplish anything. You could watch a movie, or sit on the sofa and space out; whatever feels right to you, as long as you’re not trying to be productive. Specifically scheduling in that “down time” and allowing yourself to put aside work and other commitments during that window can go a long way towards slowing you down from “overdrive” and breaking that negative circle.
2. Find Your Self-Compassion
This is closely related to #1. People often push themselves forward using self-criticism and harshness. Are you being kind to yourself, or self-critical about your difficulties with concentrating and/or sleeping? The harsher you are with yourself, the harder it is to relax and disengage, and the more internal tension you’ll create that will end up keeping you in “overdrive”. Self-compassion can be as simple as saying to yourself, “I’m under a lot of stress right now; it makes sense that I’d be having trouble focusing”.
3. Leave Multitasking Behind
Multitasking is tempting when you have a long to-do list. However, studies have shown that multitasking actually harms your productivity. Not only does it hinder you from getting things done, the constant task-switching involved in multitasking can ramp up the speed of your thoughts, and led to the feeling of being pulled in a dozen directions at once. It’s also hard to transition out of multitasking; when it’s time to stop work for the day, you’ll likely still be in the habit of searching for the next task to complete. If you’re in “overdrive” and multitasking, it could be useful to experiment with monotasking, or with mindfulness meditations.
4. Notice How You Start and Finish the Day (Set Your Phone Aside)
The first thing you do in the morning can set the tone for the day. Many people are in the habit of grabbing their smart phone the moment they wake up, and seeing a string of things that require action, such as emails and texts that need responses, or tasks to be completed. You might also notice stressful news items or friends’ activity updates that start your mind racing. If you’re in the habit of reaching for your phone the moment you wake up, it may be worth trying to give yourself a few minutes to ease into your day before engaging with the outside world. It could help you feel less overwhelmed and in “overdrive” before you even get out of bed. Likewise, if you’re using technology and “switched on” up until the moment you try to go sleep, slowly disengaging at night an hour or so before your bedtime could help you wind down and combat “overdrive”.
5. Release the Pressure Valve
If your overall stress level is high, you’ll be more at risk of “overdrive”. Even if external factors mean that your life is inherently stressful, finding ways to notch down your stress levels even a small amount may be useful. There are a number of simple stress relief exercises that can help. Journalling is also remarkably powerful for releasing the stress pressure valve (journalling as little at 4 times for 15 minutes each time has been shown to have far-reaching effects). Connecting with other people for some social support can likewise be a great stress relief, and an important part of self-care. You may have your own tried-and-true strategies for reducing stress as well.
6. Notice Your Lifestyle Habits
Often being in “overdrive” goes hand-in-hand with other habits that can become problematic or unsupportive, such as relying on coffee to stay awake or alcohol to sleep, exercising too little (or too much), and disengaging from social activities and other self-care. Sometimes those things can be useful supports, but it can also be worthwhile to notice whether the habits you adopt when you’re in “overdrive” are doing more harm than good; the 8th cup of coffee may make for a rough night ahead.
7. Talk to a Counsellor
If you’re stuck in overdrive, or find that you frequently end up in that state, talking to a counsellor can provide some support and help you find ways to keep yourself out of the “overdrive” vicious circle.