During my last year of graduate school I came to a slow but urgent realization that I bitten off more than I could chew. I was a full-time student, working massage therapist, small business owner, and mom to a 3 year-old, who of course was going through a very difficult stage. My husband, working hard to build his own career, worked relentlessly. And I was 8 months pregnant. There was an incessant ticker running in my brain, a steady stream of all of the things I had to do, and everything that might go wrong. Everything from “buy milk” to “study for licensing exam” to “figure out how to deliver baby yourself in case you are home alone and labor only takes15 minutes like last time (seriously)” would circle through my mind on a perpetual loop. I would wake up at 2am after sleeping for 4 hours, and just get up and start trying to deal with tasks (e.g. researching how to deliver a baby alone), all the while worried I was hurting the baby by not being able to sleep. I was overwrought, tearful, and generally a mess.
I’m happy to report that now, because of my work on myself and with many anxious, overwhelmed clients; I have tools that help.
Here are four best practices that worked time and again:
1. Write it all down
Sit down with a piece of paper and write down every single problem/issue/obstacle you can think of. It will be tempting to do this on your phone, but I urge you to use an actual pen and paper. Have to pick up soccer cleats for you daughter’s first practice? Write it down. Still bothered by the off-handed comment you husband made about you spending money when you’re angry? Write it down. Agitated every morning because all of your shirts suddenly seem too short? Write it down.
The reason this helps is when we are overwhelmed our brain tries helpfully remind of what we need to remember every few seconds. This feels like a thousand hi-bounce balls let loose in a concrete room. Not helpful. Once every worry/task/nightmare is on the page, we are letting our brains know that its okay, you can relax. It is all written down. This creates room in your mind for meaningful action, much more helpful that constant to do list reminders bouncing around in your head.
Probably you’ve heard this advice before, perhaps tried it once, and moved on. I encourage you to make this a practice. Try it every morning for a week. Sit down, first thing with your coffee, and make a list. It will help.
2. Ask yourself, “How can I make this easier?”
What I remember most about bouncing ball era was that I didn’t cut myself a bit of slack. I insisted on A’s on every paper, a spotless house, a big birthday party for my son. Things that, 6 years later, I see didn’t really matter. I would have the same career I have now even if I had got a “B” on some paper. My son does not remember that party. (I barely remember it myself.) And as we all know a spotless home, particularly if you share it with other people, is a Sisyphean task.
The truth is, there is a hard way and an easy way to do everything. You can do a quick pick-up, bathroom wipe down and lower the lights when you have guests, or you can start three days ahead washing baseboards and airing linens. You can research summer camp options for months to figure out the best place to send your 7 year-old, or you can call your friend Liz who has three kids and seems to know everything about every summer camp in the area, and see where she is sending her kids.
There are plenty of things that we have to do the hard way, because some problems and plans need all of our care and attention, or because we like to make the Bouillabaisse from scratch for our dinner party. But for everything else, especially in times of stress, take the easy way out.
3. Reach out
Don’t deal with overwhelm alone. It makes it so much worse. When our minds are spinning out of control and everything feels like too much, sometimes all we need to do is say it out loud to a compassionate listener to feel like it’s going to be alright. A therapist, who is both a sounding board and trusted ally in order to bring clarity to next steps, can be invaluable.
4. Make a random generous gesture
It may seem counter intuitive to suggest offering something to someone else when you are already at the end of your rope, but stick with me; it works! Making a gesture of friendship or philanthropy is a sure-fire mood boost, and helps us feel our own sense of agency in the world. These gestures don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming: Frame a picture of the two of you as children and send it to your childhood best friend. Write a heartfelt letter to the widow of your favorite high school teacher reminding him what he meant to you at that stage of your life. Make a donation to an agency whose work tugs at your heart. It will brighten the day of the recipient, but it will have an even greater positive impact on you.