A chief executive we'll call Mark rang me at the end of last year to request some one-to-one coaching because he felt embarrassed about the state he was in. He said that although he was interested in eventually joining one of my Tough at the Top support groups, he didn't want other people to witness him "at his nadir".
When we met, he talked about feeling confused and panicky and, for the first time in his career, unable to make his way through tasks that he normally took in his stride. He said that he spent long periods of time sitting in his office staring at the mountain of things to be done and just wanting to run away from them. He questioned the validity of his position as a manager and it was obvious that his self-esteem had been dented.
As we talked through all the things he expected of himself professionally and personally, it became obvious he felt overwhelmed. The biggest clue for both of us was when I said the word 'overwhelm' itself. He stopped and just stared at me. He was holding his breath and, when I mentioned this, he exhaled and said that he was so relieved that someone recognised what was going on.
It was easy for me to spot his overwhelmed state because I have a history of it myself. I've had panic attacks that I allowed to build up because I did not take notice of my confusion, anxiety and inability to prioritise. I couldn't see the wood for the trees and my thoughts would rush around in a circle rather than follow a line. Over the years, I've trained myself to view these symptoms as useful information.
I suggested that Mark examine his experience and try to identify the warning signs. If you recognise that you are beginning to feel overwhelmed, you might find this useful too. You might find your breathing becomes more rapid, that you feel anxious and confused, that you want to withdraw or that you are about to explode.
Whatever your indicators, start exercising the word 'no' and delegate more. Establish and stick to boundaries around working late and taking work home. Try giving 80 per cent for a while. Make an effort to take action that breaks the cycle, even if it's only for short bursts of time.
When you are no longer overwhelmed, review your environment. Is it supporting you? Eat and drink healthily - sugar and caffeine will exacerbate the problem and could take you into unhealthy eating patterns.
- Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives. firstname.lastname@example.org