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The dread seeps down my body, a sensation like melting candle wax flowing from the crown of my head to my heart.
I can feel it pooling there, until a literal heat sears me from the inside-out.
I see white sheets with delicate orange embroidery on the edging and heavy white floor-to-ceiling silk curtains, this whiteness reminding me: oh, no, it’s morning.
I open my eyes.
In a single instant in March my bricks and mortar business shuttered.
My child’s school closed.
Our social and community networks collapsed. The events, activities, and people once making up the basis of our daily lives became a thing of the past.
My son and I began spending 24 hours a day, isolated, in our 700 square foot apartment—punctuated only by brief ventures to the grocery store, and to visit members of our government-sanctioned social pod.
Our home, once a place of comfort, was now functionally converted into an office for me, plus a school, and 24-hour playzone, and restaurant for my son. This space, and our lives, became a mess as I fell into the dark abyss of overwhelm.
To combat it, most of us try to adhere to the messages of “work harder”—a theme beaten into us by the generation who raised us, and now reinforced by the memes casually strolling by, shouting at us through our scrolling Instagram screens.
Like a dutiful cultural daughter, I tried this strategy: getting up at 4 or 5 am in an attempt to combat the physical and metaphorical walls of distance education, parenting, business ownership, and housework that had closed in around me.
Even as I extended the work of my days to toil late into the night—even as I stretched my efforts to seven days a week—my undeniably persistent execution of hard work failed to make a meaningful dent in the piles of work teetering ever higher around me.
I kept forgetting where I had placed my purse.
I could feel my body shuddering against the relentless gale force storms of undone to-dos. A heaviness of dread preceded glances at the black lines of my Lists, like a sigh that no exhale could clear. My bodyweight felt as though it doubled when I stood from my couch to fold more laundry or pick up the toys abandoned by my son’s ceaseless whims of boredom or distraction.
I felt fragile as I softly clicked a button on my phone, to make an appointment with a mental health doctor.
At first, so heavy was my perceived load that I inadvertently passed this weight through the Zoom screen: my doctor later told me that she felt physically pressed back into her leather chair during our first session.
I made progress and developed a list of strategies with her guidance.
So. The next time the wall of overwhelm hits you, try these five doctor-approved overwhelm tips:
1. Add-in, to crowd out.
Traditional strategies for overwhelm suggest using charts and tables to categorize what is “urgent” and “important,” vs. what is not. For me, those charts felt like putting myself on a time “diet:” I could only allow myself to do the things from the “correct” quadrant of the chart…which only increased my fluster.
It seemed hyper-counterintuitive, but instead of identifying things to cut out, I named and noticed what I want to add in: hobbies and activities that brought my pandemic some pleasure.
We can trust that the things we genuinely value, and want to do, will crowd out the low-value tasks that we feel heavily obligated to do.
2. Quit for a bit.
During my longest windows of overwhelm, I often took a break. I ignored emails. I quit cleaning the apartment. I abandoned my to-do list.
My body knew what to do even as my brain did not: quit for a bit.
Taking a break is something many of us freely do multiple times a year as we board airplanes bound for vacation destinations.
Yet in moments of overwhelm, the idea of a pause from productivity can feel…overwhelming.
If we embrace the idea of a vacation free of logistics and without destination, we can reliably take breaks at the same intervals and be nearly as refreshed upon return as if we had physically boarded a plane.
3. Do one thing at a time.
Doing multiple things at once felt efficient to me but often left me feeling more frazzled: I was constantly trying to complete for my own attention.
I often found that instead of being where I was in the moment, I was somewhere else: even as my attention was already fragmented from endlessly bouncing from task to task, I was constantly thinking of what else I was failing to get to.
Focus on doing one thing mindfully instead of many without presence.
4. Think big, but act small.
Identify the smallest step you can take to move one thing forward.
Take that step.
And then stop.
Instead of time blocking for marathon social media blitzes, day-long cleaning binges, or uninterrupted quality time with my son, I broke everything down into the tiniest step that would make a difference:
- a 15 minute Uno game on the couch
- a single social media post
- a 5-minute blitz in the kitchen to do dishes
That allowed me to juggle the task list to “just enough” of everything.
5. Prioritize our physical body.
Exercise, sleep, and hyper-nutritious food are the basics at the bottom of the overwhelm pyramid, and we can’t build effective strategies on a shaken, shaky base.
I take daily mini-actions and double down the moment the familiar feeling of overburden returns.
Together, we devised the solutions above, and my doctor complimented my ability to both discover and act on these strategies.
A sense of recovery washed over me.
…Until I faced a sudden, gale-force relapse.
No formula for “five easy steps to success” exists to fully eradicate the very real and difficult burdens upon us right now.
Instead, as another phase of overwhelm strikes, we can embrace cycles of imperfection, undertake trial and error with these strategies…and try again. It’s a practice.
And we can learn to peacefully co-exist with overwhelm, without it overtaking our lives.
Yesterday, I lost my purse again.
When I found it…I added another day off to my calendar.