Last year, I shared a process known as Overwhelm First Aid on LinkedIn. It got an enthusiastic reception.

The words pause, breathe, ponder, choose & do spelt out in wooden Scrabble tiles

At the time, I felt like I had too many tabs open, too many things to deal with and think about. And that I needed a break before getting them in any sort of order. The process I shared helped.

Since then, Brené Brown’s book Atlas of the Heart has given me a deeper understanding of what overwhelm is, how it compares to stress, and eventually, a reorganising of the Overwhelm First Aid process.

Atlas of the Heart is an exploration of “eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human”. Overwhelm falls into the chapter entitled “Places we go when things are uncertain or too much”. Brené shares her experience of working in a restaurant and how when someone walked into the kitchen and said they were “blown”, a fellow member of staff took over their tasks and their supervisor sent them outside for 10-15 minutes to do nothing. Or in Brené’s case, have a cigarette and walk around the parking lot.

Blown equals overwhelm – an extreme level of stress where you’ve lost the ability to function, the only cure for which is nothingness. Do nothing, say nothing, and decide on nothing until you’ve had a break.

Armed with this knowledge, I reviewed my overwhelm process. And decided that the steps were in the wrong order. If I had the ability to write a list straight after acknowledging my overwhelm, then I was quite likely not – I was more likely stressed or “in the weeds” as Brené describes it and needed to ask for help.

So here is the revised Overwhelm First Aid checklist…

  1. STOP!
  2. Acknowledge that I’m feeling overwhelmed and that it’s OK.
  3. Do nothing for 10 to 15 minutes, preferably away from the situation that is making me overwhelmed; get outside, if possible. And no phone!
  4. Come back; make a cup of tea or grab a glass of water.
  5. Do a 10-minute brain-dump of everything that is on my mind, every little thing.
  6. Without emotional attachment, review the list and cross off anything that doesn’t need my energy right now.
  7. Review again, noticing where I could ask for help.
  8. With what’s left, start prioritising – A: what absolutely needs doing in the next 24 hours; B: what would be good to address in the next 24 hours; and C: what could happen sometime soon.
  9. Take a couple of deep breaths.
  10. Get to work on the As.

By the time I get to reviewing my brain dump list, things are hopefully starting to feel more positive. That mountain of things that I’d built up in my head is out and reduced to a small, manageable pile.

And I’ve taken less than an hour to recalibrate and gain some much-needed perspective. Yes, one or two tabs may still be open, however I’m happy to leave them until later. But most importantly, I’ve taken the time to do nothing first, to step away, and not engage in any activity.

I’d love to hear whether you find this process useful – drop me an email at

Image credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash