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Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This.

We all have times when things feel overwhelming. Whether it’s a specific part of our lives or life in general, it can feel like more than we can handle. During these moments, it’s hard to know where to start or if we’re even capable of getting through it.

True Radiance Healing Arts with Tips for How to Cope When Feeling Overwhelmed

This sense of having more to deal with than we can manage can come from a major life event or just from seeing the whole scope of a project and all there is to do at once. In response, our brain goes into survival mode, where creativity, resourcefulness, and the ability to strategize are sacrificed.

When it feels like it’s all too much, here are a few strategies to help make it manageable:

1. Breathe
Focusing on the breath is a simple but effective tool when you get caught up in the enormity of something. Attending to your breath helps you to relax. Physiologically, when your breathing deepens and you relax, it sends a message to the brain that you are safe. It also brings more oxygen to the brain, allowing you to think more clearly. Bringing focus to your breath returns your attention to the present moment, where you can identify your next step.

2. Capture and Contain
For many people, writing down all the loose ends vying for attention can help create the mental space to actually think. Try jotting down all the things swimming around in your head that you “need to do.” Don’t stop there; once you’ve captured everything on paper, try drawing a box, circle, or other closed shape all the way around it. Our mind responds to visual information, and putting a container around these tasks sends a signal to the mind that this is a “complete set.” Otherwise, your mind will likely keep searching for—and offering up—more things you “need to” deal with. (Are you still breathing?)

3. Take Stock
Give yourself a moment to acknowledge the action you’ve already taken or set in motion. Make a quick list of the resources and skills you have available to you that will help. In some situations, it can be helpful to focus on what’s known right now (instead of what might happen).

4. Find a Bite-Sized Chunk
If you made a Capture and Contain list, you might have noticed that not everything on the list can be done now. Because of the natural order of things (this must happen before that) or because of where you are right now (for example, sitting in front of the computer and not out running errands), it’s likely that some items on the list aren’t ready to be done right now. For the moment, let those go. What’s one small thing you can do right now to take a step closer to getting one thing done? It might be finding a phone number, sending off a quick email, identifying a piece of needed information, or some other relatively small task. It’s OK to start with something easy.

True Radiance Healing Arts with Tips for How to Cope When Feeling Overwhelmed5. Focus on the Very Next Step
There’s a bit of mental discipline required in staying with the very next step. Our mind can race down the path far ahead, noticing all of what must be done, the entire sequence, all at once. When you notice that your attention has wandered into the future, gently bring yourself back to the present by again returning to your breath. What’s your very next step?

6. Tap Your Resilience
Take a moment to think of a challenging time you’ve been through. Maybe it’s a situation where you or others were surprised at what you were capable of handling. Acknowledge yourself for having accomplished this, taking note of the skills and abilities you brought to the situation. Remember that you are capable of handling tremendous feats and difficulties.

Still breathing?

We have the capacity and strength to overcome great obstacles and accomplish miracles. These strategies can help.

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing Arts(Reading time: approx 5 minutes)

Our culture tends to promote a “go big or go home” approach to changing habits, but it turns out that this is completely counter to what works with our brain.

Have you ever thought about changing a habit in your life – maybe starting an exercise routine or getting back into a creative hobby? We tend to make big plans for ourselves with goals like this. We might say to ourselves,

“From now on I’m going to _____ every day,” or “I’m going to set aside a whole day to _____”

These are examples of big changes in habits. Occasionally we’re able to carry out a big change like this for a little while, like a New Year’s Resolution that lasts for a few days or maybe weeks, but we typically don’t sustain them.

When our best laid plans begin to come apart and we find ourselves not sticking to the big goal we set for ourselves, there’s a tendency to beat ourselves up. We think the reason we weren’t successful is that we didn’t try hard enough, we got lazy, or we just don’t have enough willpower.

In fact, the number one reason our attempts at changing habits fail isn’t because of any shortcoming on our part – it’s because of our brain.

Deep in the midbrain is a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response when we encounter a threat. This part of the brain is always on the lookout for things that are different – and it equates differences in our usual routine with potential threats.

Because the amygdala is closely tied in with the brain stem and the nervous system, it can trigger a reaction in the body before we think about it. When this happens, we often find ourselves on the couch watching TV, grabbing a snack, or pretty much doing anything except for the new goal we meant to do.

This system, while of great benefit when survival is at stake, is less convenient at other times. For example, when you decide you’re going to start exercising every day when you haven’t been exercising at all for a while. Since it’s not part of your usual habits, the amygdala can perceive this big change as a threat. The amygdala sounds the alarm and suddenly you find yourself in fight, flight or freeze – doing nothing, or perhaps chowing down on a donut, but almost certainly *not* exercising.

Meanwhile, wrapped around the midbrain is the cortex. The cortex handles all of our complex thinking: language, creativity, imagination, and strategy. When the amygdala is triggered, all of those resources are temporarily offline and the amygdala is in charge of our behavior.

This means that although we can use our cortex to set goals for ourselves, to imagine changes we’d like to make in our lives, and to make choices in our long-term best interest, all those best laid plans can come to a halt when the amygdala detects a difference in our routine.

Given this sensitive tripwire in our brain, how can we actually make the changes we want in our lives?

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing ArtsThe most effective way to make a lasting change or make progress on a big goal is to break it down into small steps. This approach is called “kaizen,” a Japanese word meaning “incremental daily improvement.” In this case, we’re talking about taking very, very small steps to accomplish a big goal or develop a new habit.

Making changes using small steps allows us to sneak past the amygdala without setting off the alarm bells. Small in this case means 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a time, repeated over time.

Besides being an effective way to change habits in general, a kaizen approach to a changing habits is ideal if you haven’t been able to find the time or energy to start, if you’re a perfectionist, or if the idea of making the change is overwhelming or maybe even makes you a bit nervous.

Here are some examples of changes that work really well with a kaizen approach:

  • Developing a writing habit by writing for 5 minutes – even just writing one sentence – a day
  • Starting an exercise routine starting with simply putting on your exercise shoes, doing one stretch, or walking to the end of the driveway and back
  • Drinking more water by filling a glass or bottle with water in the morning and keeping it with you
  • Learning to meditate by reminding yourself to take a deep breath periodically throughout the day or by focusing on a mantra or affirmation for a few minutes at a time
  • Practicing gratitude by sending a text to a friend every evening with one moment you are grateful for that day
  • Getting back into a hobby you used to love, such as painting or swimming, by imagining yourself doing it, in as much sensory detail as possible, for one minute a day

The small step may seem absurdly small. You might wonder how such a little step could actually get you anywhere, but consider this:

  • Even if you’re only writing for 5 minutes a day, that’s 25-35 minutes over the course of the week and about 2 hours in a month. That may well be more time than you’re spending on it now.
  • Make the bargain with yourself to do the small step. If you feel like doing more, you can always do that. For example, if you set a small step goal of putting on your walking shoes and walking to the mailbox, you can always go to the end of the block and back instead if you’re feeling inspired.
  • All our habits have corresponding neural networks in the brain. Those neural networks get reinforced and strengthened through repetition – not duration. In other words, in building a habit it’s much more effective to do something 20 times for 30 seconds at a time than it is spend 10 minutes doing it just once.
  • Taking these small steps tends to make a goal feel more manageable and it increases our motivation to do them. We get a taste for it and after a little while it feels easier than it did before we started.

How small is small enough? Your small step should be easy enough that you can’t help but do it. If you find yourself not getting to it, take that simply as feedback that you haven’t made the step small enough. Lower your expectation of yourself even further until you can easily do it.

Given how minor and relatively quick it is to do, it helps to put a structure in place to help you remember to do it. A few examples of structures that work well are having a friend or partner do it with you, setting a reminder on your phone or calendar, or putting a sticky note reminder in a place where you’ll see it every day.

One last key to success with small steps: Give yourself credit for doing even the tiniest of steps toward your goal. It may feel a bit ridiculous to part of you (the part that thinks if you haven’t gone “all the way” then you haven’t done it all), but celebrating these small actions acts like gasoline on the little fire you’ve started. It stimulates the reward center in the brain, releasing neurochemicals that help to reinforce the new neural networks you’re building.

If you’re curious how a small steps approach might apply to your goals, I’m happy to talk to you about it. Just send me an email or give me a call.

Black and White Thinking: Good or Bad?

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsI was talking to a client a few years back. She was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. She said to me, “Everyone I know is in chaos right now.” Knowing how our thoughts can impact our emotional state, I asked her, “Is that really true? Everyone?”

She paused, running through her family and friends in her mind. “No, not everyone. Actually, just 5 people.” She let out a breath and started to relax.

Dichotomous thinking, sometimes called black and white thinking, is seeing things as all good or all bad. It lumps the whole world or an entire spectrum together in one big generalization, increasing our chances of feeling overwhelmed.

We miss the complexity and subtlety in situations because we can’t see multiple perspectives or allow that there might be more than one acceptable way of doing things. This can add pressure to our relationships.

It’s fairly common for all of us to do this once in a while, especially if we’re already feeling stressed, but for some people this thinking style is more pervasive. Unfortunately, dichotomous thinking can make us feel even more stressed out. A habit of dichotomous thinking has also been associated with depression and other mental illnesses.

These kinds of all-or-nothing thoughts are also associated with perfectionism, telling us that if we didn’t do it perfectly, it was a complete failure. It robs us from a sense of satisfaction with our life because it’s not possible to meet the expectations we set for ourselves and others. It can also keep us from even starting a project, because we’ve been told, “if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”

There’s an old story about the farmer and his son. The farmer had a horse. One day when the son was trying to break the horse, he threw off the young man and he broke his arm. All the people in the town said to the farmer “this is terrible!” but the farmer shrugged his shoulders and replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Soon after this, some men from the army appeared in the town. They drafted all the young men who were able to fight. They didn’t take the farmer’s son because he had a broken arm. The people of the town exclaimed “you are so lucky that they didn’t take your son—it’s a good thing his arm was broken.” And the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Then the farmer’s horse got out of the field and ran away. The people said “this is awful news” but the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

The next day the farmer’s horse returned—and brought several other wild horses with him. The townspeople remarked “you are so lucky! This is great!” And the farmer simply said “is it good or is it bad?”

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsThere are very, very few events in our lives that are inherently good or bad. When we look back at even the most challenging of times in our life – events we would never have chosen – this is often when significant growth happens. Gifts can ultimately come from dire circumstances. Judging things as good or bad oversimplifies our experiences.

Given that black and white thinking skews our perception of reality and can take a toll on our health, relationships, and productivity, what can we do to catch it and change it?

We can think of dichotomous thinking as a habit of the mind. Like any habit, it can be changed over time when we put a conscious focus on it.

The first step is to notice what you’re saying to yourself – particularly when you’re feeling stressed. Be on the lookout for anything you might be saying to yourself or to other people with words like “everything,” “everyone,” “always,” “never,” or “nobody.” Even the words “good” or “bad” can signal that we’ve fallen into black and white thinking.

When you notice you’re making this kind of generalization or judgment, ask yourself, “Is that really true?” There isn’t much in our lives that is absolutely true all of the time or with all people.

Now ask yourself, “What might be more accurate?” See if you can be more specific. Challenge yourself to see from someone else’s perspective or come up with other ways of looking at a situation (even though you may not believe they’re “right”).

In some cases, this exercise can immediately help to lower your stress level. If dichotomous thinking is common for you, it will likely take some practice before you reap the full benefit. It’s within your power to choose to think differently – and feel better because of it.

“That did NOT just happen”: Reconciling with reality

shutterstock_138909998 facepalm stick figureThere are times when a situation comes up in our lives that we have a hard time reconciling. It could be a comment someone made to us that gets under our skin, when something that happens that we don’t know how to accept, or when someone else’s behavior (or even our own) doesn’t match our expectations.
You might find yourself thinking something like, “How can this be happening?” or “How could she do that?! A real (friend/ mother/ doctor/ daughter/ wife) would never do that!” Or it might be something along the lines of, “How could I have done that? If I were a good (friend/ mother/ doctor/ daughter/ wife) I would never have done that!”
In situations like these, our idea of what should be and the reality of what is conflict. This discord creates stress for us. We might find ourselves replaying an interaction or circling and circling the same thoughts. We get stuck in the story.
Another sign we are stuck in our story is when we catch ourselves telling friends what happened, in the same way, over and over again.
Until we change the way we talk to ourselves and others about the situation, we will remain trapped in the same pattern.
Rewire Your Thought Patterns and Reconcile with Reality | True Radiance Healing ArtsWhen you change the way you tell your story it opens the door for the story, and therefore the thoughts and feelings that go with it, to shift.
How can you begin to tell a different story? How might you start a conversation with yourself and others that is different from the conversation you’ve been having?
Getting really accurate about what’s actually happening now can be a good first step. Notice what you are saying to yourself and question it: “is that really true?” Be particularly suspicious of thoughts with words like, “always,” “never,” “everything,” or “should.”
Ask yourself what feelings are coming up around this situation; see if you can name them. Challenge yourself to speak from your heart about what is true for you, rather than speaking from your mind’s version of the situation.
When you have a mental model of how things should be, or how you want them to be, this drives your expectation of how things will play out in your life. Reality often refuses to comply with our mental models, however. What are the expectations you had in this situation that aren’t being met?
As you begin to break down the old story, it makes room for a newer, more accurate understanding of a situation. When you can make the story big enough to hold reality – that’s when you return to peace within yourself.