What to do when life feels almost unbearable

"But when you’re suffering from overwhelm – when your ability to cope is impaired  – it can feel almost unbearable."

“But when you’re suffering from overwhelm – when your ability to cope is impaired – it can feel almost unbearable.”

Yesterday I had a flat tyre. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. All I had to do was call Roadside Assistance, have the nice man change it for the spare, and then take my car to the tyre place to have the other nice man repair the puncture for me.

But in that moment, it felt impossible. I was in the midst of overwhelm, when everything in my life just felt too much. I was emerging from a period of personal and professional stress, and my ability to keep up the juggling act was severely diminished.

And really, life is a juggling act, for all of us, all of the time. Modern living is incredibly complex. You need to open your mail, pay your bills, keep your house tidy and your clothes laundered, ensure the internet is working and your car is serviced, shop for groceries, sort your inbox, feed your family, deal with your loved ones’ emotional needs, manage your kids’ education and social lives, exercise, do your taxes, deal with your health issues, read the news… And this is before you can even think about doing your actual paid work.

No wonder a blown tyre can throw everything out.

There are times when the juggle seems manageable (though rarely effortless). But when you’re suffering from overwhelm – when your ability to cope is impaired because of stress or anxiety or ill health or exhaustion – it can feel almost unbearable. Last week I felt as though I was perched on top of a teetering tower of bricks, and that being given one more task, being asked one more question, having one more tiny setback, would throw me entirely off balance and send me crashing to the ground.

When overwhelm hits, the best solution is to get back to basics. You need to simplify your life, at least for the time it takes to get through the overwhelm and feel in control again. You may long to just check out (when my tyre blew I wanted to sit on the floor and cry) but you have to keep going, because allowing unfinished business to pile up around you will simply make the overwhelm worse. The key is to create an environment where productivity is possible, where you can get through your tasks without feeling like they’ll crush you under their weight.

Some tips for managing overwhelm:

  • Start living in Day Tight Compartments*. Focus only on what needs to be done today.
  • Write a comprehensive To Do list, and then assign tasks to different days. If it can be put off till tomorrow or next week, schedule it for tomorrow or next week. If you get through all of today’s tasks with time to spare, tackle some of tomorrow’s tasks, or rest.
  • Stop multitasking. Get through one chore at a time.
  • If outside noise is affecting your concentration, try a white noise app. I often use Sound Sleeper while I’m working; the thunderstorm and fireplace tracks are particularly soothing.
  • Say no. This is your time to scale back. Refuse invitations, requests for favours, and extra projects until you are back on track.
  • Schedule breaks and rewards for each few tasks you get through. A cup of coffee after you’ve opened the mail. A browse through Facebook after you’ve made that phone call.
  • Clear out your inbox and tidy your desk. A cluttered inbox and messy desk can exacerbate feelings of overwhelm. Taking the time to sort your messages and work space can do wonders to help calm your mind and make you feel more in control.
  • Exercise. Add it to your To Do list and make it happen, whether it’s a session at the gym or a walk around the block. Exercise is the best way to physically alleviate the symptoms of stress. You will absolutely feel better afterwards.
  • Breathe. Try the 478 breathing technique for effective stress-relief.
  • Stay in the moment. Focus on your breathing for a few minutes a couple of times a day, or download the Headspace app for some simple guided and non-guided meditations.

*thank you Dale Carnegie for the term

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