When Overloaded

the normal response is to fall back to habitual things, to narrow one’s perspective to the most immediate concerns and just try to survive.

As far as I can tell, we’ve been like that pretty much forever – it seems to be a slightly more self-aware version of animal survival instincts.

Which would, of course, explain why we just keep doing it, even when it’s not the best way to deal with a situation. Or in some cases a decent way to deal with something.

I’ve been there often enough to know, and to have a few somewhat usable methods of pushing back so I don’t go from overload to burnout or worse, crash. It’s something I’ve had to learn as part of juggling with narcolepsy spoons – something anyone who lives with a long-term disabling condition has to learn.

It starts with stress, of course. Whether the stress is physical or mental doesn’t really make that much difference, apart from the “fun” extras that physical stress can generate. After enough of it, the constant twitching of fight/flight responses turns into a kind of dull roar of tension that never goes away. Relaxing just doesn’t happen – the poor sod in the situation might be able to push it away for a bit by doing something they like, but then as soon as they stop, the weight of it rolls right back.

And everything is muted. The overloaded one stops enjoying things. There’s just not enough “them” left to spare on happiness, or so it seems. There’s always the next problem to deal with, and the next, and the next…

Someone who’s gone that far down the overload path often can’t tell whether or not the next problem is really a problem, much less how important it is or whether it can be put off for a while. They might be grouchy, or they might just seem lifeless. They’ll avoid activities they’d normally enjoy, right along with activities that they don’t want to do. In more extreme cases, they start cocooning themselves, pulling away from contact with other people a putting up walls to avoid others.

At that level, it’s well past overload and into burnout, and it can take a long time for someone to recover. Weeks, even months. I’ve certainly had times where I’ve been solidly into burnout and took more than 2 weeks of inactivity to reach the point where I started to feel alive again. Happy took longer.

That’s why when I notice the signs I start to pull back on the things that generate excess stress and start to consciously look for things that make me happy. Things that don’t need much energy but make me feel alive. It helps – I might be semi-permanently exhausted (thank you so much, narcolepsy – but I can still take joy in the small things.

If you’re overloaded, do what you can to do the same thing. Pull back from the responsibilities eating you alive, find the little things that give you pleasure. And remember, you’re not the only one that’s always running out of spoons.

That or some S.O.B. stole all the life-spoons and left us with a shortage.


  1. This is timely, especially for me. The burnout is actively affecting my health now and I am having trouble balancing my needs with those of the family. Even full nights of sleep aren’t restful anymore. I hope that will rectify itself eventually.

  2. And remember, you’re not the only one that’s always running out of spoons.

    But but… I have it worse than anybody else!!!!! 😈

    Seriously, that’s how I would think in times past. 😦

  3. “Pull back from the responsibilities eating you alive, find the little things that give you pleasure.”

    This is very important. Sitting and writing is -exhausting-. Seems stupid, but running around painting all day is easier.

    So I found one little thing. Maximum Maxwell, (named for Maxwell’s Demon obviously) is sitting under my feet right now. He’s a Standard Poodle, midnight black, about 3 months old. He bites like a furry shark. I’ve got pin holes all over me from the little shark teeth.

    My work load has quadrupled thanks to him (holy shit puppies are a lot of work!), what with fencing and whatnot, but he chases away that other black dog, the depressing one. I get four times the work done, and still the same amount of writing.

    We also have a new (to me anyway) tractor here at Phantom Northern Command, now I can actually do all the yard work and moving of gravel etc. formerly prevented by the bad knee. Lifting, pushing, pulling are all easy, dragging tree limbs 100 yards to the bonfire not so much. Now the little machine does the dragging. Much better.

  4. I’m learning that I can’t trust myself at night. In that everything I have pending looms larger and larger as I get more and more tired, to the point that Problems develop. The next morning? Everything is back to reasonable size and I can prioritize. Mental exhaustion wears on me more than physical exhaustion does, and when the Black Dog starts sneaking in… Yeah. April of this year was rough. Things are much, much better now.

    1. This. I can do chores in five minutes in the morning that would take me half an hour at night if I could even muster up the will to try.

  5. When I’m overloaded, I shift from story to story a lot. . . which is frustrating but does move toward completion if I remember to circle back.

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