Some days, it may seem as if you are boxing with your brain. The hits keep coming, and it’s all you can do to fend them off. Perhaps, you are orchestrating a life that is overflowing with responsibilities. Do you put a ton of pressure on yourself thinking everything has to be done perfectly? Maybe, you are taking care of an elderly relative, have a health crisis, or financial worries. Whatever the onslaught looks like, you can always choose to be present, even though it is not easy when the present feels overwhelming. At those times, practicing mindfulness is possible but difficult. By focusing on your breath, acknowledging the challenge du jour, and reminding yourself you are here for the full buffet of life, not just the dishes you like, you can re-center yourself.
When you want to stop the world and take a break but there’s no way you can make time to meditate, do yoga, read a book, or watch the clouds, you can find refuge in the breath. While many recommend deep, slow breathing to calm your nervous system; sometimes, it is simply too hard to do. If that is the case for you now, it may be best to first ground yourself. If you are standing, feel the earth under your feet and remind yourself you are connected to all that is. If you are sitting, notice where your body is touching the chair and allow it to sink in a little deeper. Then, imagine the breath is coming in from your left nostril and going out the right. Then, it comes in from the right and goes out the left. (You can find a detailed description of this pattern in the chapter called Breath Work.)
All stress is exacerbated when it reverberates, hence my coining the term: emotional reverb. It describes the way minds and bodies have a tendency to repeat thoughts and feelings, on both emotional and physical planes, even when you consciously know that repetition is unproductive. Rather than stay mired in a cycle of incessant unhelpful thoughts and feelings, you can switch gears. If you are reading a book but find your thoughts wandering into troublesome territory get up. Bake a pan of brownies, take a walk, call a friend, do some errands, or listen to upbeat music. Anything to break the rumination.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by life. A multiplicity of challenging things all occur at the same time leaving you feeling tired, frazzled, and wondering if you can cope.
If you have a tendency to be perfectionistic, you are probably increasing your stress and feeling even more cooked. The pressure you put on yourself to excel ratchets up your tension and activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze). At the end of the day, even if you accomplished your goal and everything worked out beautifully, you may still feel overwhelmed because of that unrelenting internal perfectionistic, critical voice.
The first thing to address, believe it or not, is not actually feeling overwhelmed, but seeing if you are putting yourself down for feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps, you hear an inner cacophony of self-criticism, like:
I should be able to handle this without feeling as if I’m imploding.
What’s wrong with me? The littlest thing sends me over the edge.
I should be more resilient, patient, and calm.
I’m such a mess, I just can’t cope.
Ask yourself if any of those statements are really true.
Everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes, why shouldn’t you? Torpedo those perfectionistic thoughts that just add emotional bricks to your load by challenging your unhelpful beliefs as vociferously as you can.
Where is it written I should handle all problems with poise and equanimity?
What 11th commandment says I shouldn’t feel stressed when responsibilities fill my days?
Must I feel competetive with other people’s ways of navigating life?
Isn’t it enough to have so much on my plate without adding a hefty portion of self-downing?
(Please refer to Albert Ellis’ book: HOW TO STUBBORNLY REFUSE TO MAKE YOURSELF MISERABLE ABOUT ANYTHING, YES, ANYTHING! for a detailed and pragmatic way to tackle unhelpful thoughts.)
Think of all the times you have felt buffeted about by life’s slings and arrows. Somehow, you managed to deal with every single one. Yes, there were moments when you felt touched by grace and sashayed through a troubling experience. Then, there were times you gritted your teeth and suffered through each miserable second. Either way, you survived.
In the throes of overwhelment, it is all too easy to forget your resilience. Resilience is not about gliding effortlessly through stress; but, knowing you can withstand something scary, unpleasant, or debilitating. Like your self-confidence that grows with each new accomplishment, resilience increases every time you navigate a challenging situation.
Last but not least, lack of rest and downtime contribute mightily to feeling overwhelmed.
Try this little self-assessment: Take a piece of paper and write down everything, even the littlest things, you have done since waking this morning. Ask yourself: Is there any way I could have omitted something and just sat quietly for five minutes?
Recently, I did my own experiment. I had five minutes and spent them sitting with my eyes closed focusing on my breath. First, I equalized my inhales and exhales; then, I lengthened the exhale until it was twice as long as the inhale. The benefits were obvious and immediate. I felt calm, centered, and relaxed. You would think I would have taken that mini-break every day since; but, alas, I have not. It’s all too easy to let life intrude. I’ll just do one more thing. Why? Since no one dies with their in-box empty, it might be the illusion of control. The more we do, the more we delude ourselves into thinking we have things covered. In some ways, that’s true, since procrastination often leads to more stress. The key is balance. The sweet spot of greater inner peace lies between too much activity and too little, too many things to do versus too few. As paradoxical as it sounds, having the strength to rest takes a great deal of focus and self-discipline. I invite you to join me as I make rest more of a priority.
(*I know overwhelment is not a word, yet; but, as the daughter of a lexicographer I am putting in a plug that it becomes one. Without it, all other options are wordy, cumbersome, and awkward.)
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang