Counsellor’s Corner: Overwhelmed!

It’s an epidemic I tell you! They’re coming down to my office in droves telling me how overwhelmed they are feeling.

It could be the product of the fast-paced world we live in. With everything needing to be done in an instant, maybe we lack the patience to slowly and methodically see things through to the finish, and this is why we are so easily overwhelmed. Perhaps we are just trying to do too much – trying to force the issue and squeeze the most out of every situation – and this is why we are feeling overwhelmed. Or maybe feeling overwhelmed is just a part of the human condition.

Before we go too much farther, let’s attempt to define the state of feeling overwhelmed. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines the word “overwhelm” with a slew of descriptors that include: inundate, bury, drown, defeat and overpower. In other words, to overwhelm is to completely dominate. Therefore, to be overwhelmed is to feel like you are inundated, buried, drowned, defeated and overpowered. You suffer crushing immobility in light of the emotional weight of a given situation.

When students visit me, and describe how they are feeling overwhelmed, I have to remain conscious of the burden that accompanies that particular state of mind. I have to be as empathetic as possible. I have to do my best to recognize that they are feeling so inundated that they are in a state of emotional and intellectual paralysis. Certainly, this all sounds a little dramatic but, if I am being honest, this is where they are at when they come to see me.

However, empathy is just step one. If we stop with empathy our students will remain trapped in that overwhelming feeling. The next step is to recognize how they became overwhelmed in the first place. Sometimes the fact that they are encountering a new experience or new knowledge can be overwhelming. Sometimes there is a stressful mood in the building – particularly around report card and exam times – that is washing over them. Sometimes they have hit their academic limit. Sometimes they have neglected things and the overwhelming feelings are a result of their own actions (or lack thereof). An honest appraisal of what brought the student to feeling overwhelmed is a key to helping them move forward.

Once the root cause of the feeling is exposed, I can start offering suggestions that might provide them with a way out of what is a pretty desperate situation. However, all I can do is offer them suggestions. Ultimately, they have to choose whether to accept or reject what I have to offer. Often a student who is feeling overwhelmed doesn’t want to hear their guidance counsellor say: “it takes time to learn new material” or “everyone’s tense right now because exams are coming” or “maybe this is the best you can do” or “of course you’re overwhelmed – you didn’t study for your test.”

Sometimes, I find the best strategy is get them to tell me how they think they came to feel overwhelmed. When they do that, I like to remind them that life is about learning to cope with the stress that comes our way. The more capable we are of handling stress, the more capable we are of taking on more responsibility.

So, perhaps this state of being really is just part of the human condition. As I sat down to write this column, I was a little overwhelmed. Beyond my regular duties as a Guidance Counsellor, I had a deadline for this column to meet, a word count to hit, and an editor to please. I also had another project that required me to write two articles and edit two others. All of the deadlines crashed into each other and I was a little breathless at times. However, I have been down this road before; I know that I can meet my commitments and that the key is to stay calm and believe that I can do it. I refuse, as a matter of principle, not to be overwhelmed to the point of inaction. When the tidal wave of stress comes, I do my best to NOT feel buried, drowned, defeated and overpowered because I know that the feeling is temporary and that I can do the things I need to do. In the end, if we can help our students to feel the same way – to believe that they can overcome that overwhelming feeling – we are contributing to their ability to build resilience in the face of life’s adversities.   

By: Sean Dolan

Sean Dolan taught for 20 years before moving into Guidance and Career Education six years ago. He is currently working as a high school guidance counsellor at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.