There it is again, the weight of stress. The room feels warmer, your head feels tighter, your thoughts begin to get out of control. The anxiety cycle begins. This is a cycle that is far too common, but yet, it’s something that our modern lives promote daily. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for coping with this to remain in a high performance state despite overwhelm. Today we’ll explore a few things that I turn to when I’m overwhelmed.
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a reset. My aim has been to discover how I can put in 16 hours of intense and sustained effort each day. I’m fine with having to have good quality sleep, I’m willing to put the time aside for that. But I’ve done many experiments and have found great progress. While sustained effort is not sustainable over the long-term, I have the found the quickest ways to reset when I’m overwhelmed.
It isn’t about whether or not you’ll feel overwhelmed. The focus isn’t on preventing overwhelm, if you have a sizable ambition in life, you’ll experience overwhelm. That stress, in a healthy amount, is what triggers adaptations. The key is what you do when you’re overwhelmed. Just as the best friends are not those who are around when things are going well (e.g. you’re rich), but those who are around when things are going bad (e.g. you lose all your money).
It isn’t what you do when things are going well that matters, but that which you do when things turn negative.
What I Do When I’m Overwhelmed
1. Find Stillness
The most effective way to reset is NOT to watch TV or play a video game. It certainly isn’t to go on social media. These activities all use up mental resources and hold your attention.
The best reset comes from releasing your attention, much like how a good night of being unconscious can leave you energized. You can mimic this kind of reset through meditation. Research even shows experienced meditators need less sleep and can reset via meditation.
But there are many types of meditation and a lot of them may be counter to the objective. I take meditation one step further.
My objective is to simply remove all stimulus. I put on noise blocking headphones (e.g. the type used at a gun range), I close my eyes, and I’m in a position that will allow as little physical distraction as possible.
This is what I call “Whitespace”. It is my go-to when I’m overwhelmed.
During this time I progressively relax in stages.
- I start by scanning my body for anywhere there is tension, then I gently release tension in that area.
- Common tension areas for me are: lower abs, chest, shoulders, and cheekbones.
- I give myself perimssion to feel whatever is there. I don’t judge it, I just let it go. It’s okay if it remains, it’s okay if it doesn’t. I explore the sensation with a sense of curiosity, a wonder for the experience of the sensation.
- Then I slow my breathing. I may have a hand on my stomach and chest to reduce how much air I’m taking in until I feel a slight air hunger. My aim is to feel as if I am not breathing. I may also use a finger under my nose and limit the warm air that I feel on a very relaxed exhale while keeping the inhale very short and very small.
When you’re overwhelmed, it feels like there is a fire in your face. During this state, your mind is wired to focus intensely on that fire. You won’t be considering the bigger picture, but yet, that is exactly what you need to put things in perspective. Everything seems bigger up close, you need to take a step back.
Journaling (on paper) does wonders for me when I’m overwhelmed. I think it helps by slowing my thoughts down when forming structured sentences. It also helps to by getting them out of my head. This is a metaphorical “stepping back”, distancing myself from the worries.
I just write. Whatever comes up, I throw down on the paper. No judgement, just curiosity. This is a process and may feel unnatural at first. But as writers, you may understand that the creative process is a lot about trust and that the best flow comes after some initial doubts.
Aim to discover the Why behind your work. This may take a few moments of scribbling before you get a proper hold of your thoughts. Some times will be easier than others.
If you started off your day wit ha “highlight” to accomplish, then it can be very helpful to connect the Why to that highlight. This helps to recapture the purpose behind your work and consequently promotes bigger picture thinking.
The main difficulty I’ve found with this has been remembering the Why and other strategies that I think would help. When you’re overwhelmed, those ideas are harder to recall.
I find that when I’m overwhelmed it’s extra important to not focus so much on the technique — this takes mental resources and promotes anxiety — but instead to focus on utter curiosity about my experience. The latter promotes stillness and presence, and that is what we’re after.
It helps to have a checklist that serves as a reminder of the things that I’ve captured over times while in more positive states. One key theme that pops up in my checklists is the Power of Perspectives. This single concept to me captures the transient nature of mental states and how I’ll be in a different mental state later thinking back to how silly the current fire is. It also captures ammo for when I’m overwhelmed about a another person, remembering my proof that everyone is doing the best they can because of the single instance of consciousness that we have limiting our ability to pattern match and understand where others are coming from.
I’ve dumped a lot of meaning into this concept, which I call “Singleton Consciousness” and I continue to build it out. Something like this is incredibly powerful, it essentially serves as a proverb. The key is to find what’s meaningful for you, it may be bible verses or something reassuring that your mother has repeated to you as a child. These sort of concepts belong in that checklist.
3. Change Environment
Sensory organs describe the environment to the brain. The jumbled mess of input the brain receives from these organs creates a single “context” of the situation. The subsequent mental activity in the brain is all within this context.
Ever notice how a smell can bring back memories of your grandmother’s house? That smell has been associated with the memory via context. A memory isn’t some single thing, it contains sensations and other information in a very complex relationship. This is the basic idea behind my “Previous Positive Experience” meditation for utilizing the overlap of certain experiences from a positive situation, such as breathless of awe while on a mountain and breathless from anxiety before a speech. The overlap of the same sensory experience provides a bridge from the interpretation of anxiety and fear to one of awe and wonder. This takes practice.
This is even related to the “Doorway Effect“, which describes the phenomenon of forgetting something when changing rooms.
The point here is that your environment is very important. Changing your environment can serve as a reset. In an analogy, it is like removing yourself from the room that your brain has tagged as “the place with the fire”.
In a similar manner, exercise of any sort is incredibly powerful. The brain strongly rewards forward movement. Just a 10 minute, relaxed, walk can be enough to flush the brain with new neurochemicals and reset you. I’ve personally have begun falling in love with yoga for its gentle and relaxing nature, it has served wonders as a quick way to release tension and relax while moving my body.
My go-to exercise is a walk out in nature.
4. I Avoid Food When I’m Overwhelmed
Overeating or simply the distraction of food itself is a huge productivity killer. When I’m distracted by food, my performance suffers the most.
Because of this, I’ve grown to love long-term fasting. The opposing force of my love for weight lifting and objectives of muscle building and healthy living has contributed to my fine-tuning of a very effecting fasting protocol to get the best of both worlds.
I fast daily for at least 16 hours, my eating window is around my least productive time (usually the afternoon, if I’m not at my day-job that day, or the morning where I have a bunch of meetings, if at my day-job). For the past 8 months I’ve fasted for 40-50 hours once a week (which includes a part of my weekend, where I do most of my writing, learning, programming, and other focused work). That much fasting was fine for the first 6 months, but it has lowered my HRV (see my post on improving sleep for high performance for the scoop on HRV), indicating stress. This has competed with my weight lifting goals and sleep quality.
The point is that food can directly impact your ability to think bigger picture. In this state, my thoughts can easily get clouded, worries come up easier, and mental stillness is harder to find. Thoughts are slipperier. It can be tempting to use the quick pleasure it provides as an escape from the stress. The first time caving in can be the start of a horrible cycle that kills your ability for high performance.
Next time you’re overwhelmed, consider your eating patterns (what and when your eating). There could be an impact here.
Action Plan When I’m Overwhelmed
Let’s put this into an action plan.
- Avoid food.
- Have a prepared checklist that captures the Why behind your work.
- Remove as much stimulus as possible. Give yourself permission to feel the overwhelm.
- Vomit out your thoughts, no matter how gruesome, onto paper. Be curious and non-judgemental. Use the checklist for inspiration.
- Change your environment. Go for a walk. Find some way to give your brain a new context to interpret the stimulus.
Thank you for reading!
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What is it that you do when you feel overwhelmed? What have you tried, what didn’t work and what worked? Share in the comments section below!
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