Modern life is often busy, chaotic and overwhelming. If you struggle with a tendency to take on too much or hold yourself to impossibly high standards, you might well feel overwhelmed from time to time. Many of us live in our heads too much, doubting ourselves and ruminating on the bad stuff – what we’ve got to do, what we should have done, and how we wish things were different.
How to reduce overwhelm – day by day
In my Daily Drops of Calm video series I offer simple techniques that can bring some peace, calm and perspective to our daily lives at work and at home.
Here are seven simple practices that can quickly take you from frantic and frazzled to calm and centred.
1. Start your day in Peace
When my kids were very young, mornings could be difficult. It got to the point where I’d had enough of being woken up by a loud ‘Mum!’ in my ear, or worse, being hit on the head, and starting the day off in pain, engulfed by the fear reflex or just plain grouchy.
Toddlers get up very early – but I had to come up with a better way to start my day. I made a conscious choice to change my daily routine so that I could start my day in peace.
Sometimes, I’d set the alarm for 5.30 but mostly I was able to wake at 6 and have at least a few minutes to myself before one of them came padding in. And as my husband was commuting into London everyday he made me a cup of tea before he left at 6am. I could sit in bed, sip my tea and wake up in peace.
Some days I would only have a couple of minutes, but on other blissful mornings I would get to enjoy a whole hour to myself before I had to get up. It made a massive difference to how calm and in control I felt throughout the rest of the day.
Even now, when my kids are teenagers who sleep in for hours, I love that feeling of waking early and reading, meditating or journaling, and it seems to set the tone for the coming day.
Is there room in your schedule to allow yourself to wake up more gently, and do something just for you before the rest of the day’s activities begin?
2. Press the Pause Button
Do you have days when from the moment you get up to the moment you go to bed you feel busy, busy, busy and you don’t have a moment to yourself? What often happens is you go through the day on automatic pilot, responding and reacting to what’s happening to you in unconscious, and often reactive and unhelpful ways.
It doesn’t feel good does it?
I’ve found that getting into the habit of taking just five minutes from a busy day to stop and pause really helps me.
Try this by giving yourself a few minutes with a cup of tea – preferably outside, or by a window – to press the pause button and be still.
Let your thoughts wonder lightly without getting caught up in any particular train of thought.
Let the worries go and be still in that moment.
Notice what you see and what you hear and allow yourself to step back into the present, in your senses, into yourself.
It’s like a drop of calm in a busy day and instead of taking a precious five minutes away from you, it gives you the sense of having more time, energy and control than beforehand.
3. Your thoughts are not true!
Do you go about your day believing everything you think? Do you take everything you say as the gospel truth? I used to – before I realised that thoughts are often automatic and just because they are in my head doesn’t mean they are true.
Learning to notice and label your thoughts is extremely powerful. For example, when you next notice that you are feeling stressed or upset, stop and pause. Tell yourself that what you are thinking is just a thought and it’s not true. Start questioning and standing back from your thoughts instead of taking them to be the gilt-edged truth.
When my children were younger I used to get irritated when they messed around at the table because I thought that it would inevitably lead to an argument or get out of control. When I realised that this thought was not true, it was just one of many possible interpretations, I could choose whether to listen to it or not. OK, I’m not saying it’s always easy, and it’s a practice that builds into a habit over time.
In this case, I decided to label it as my ‘messing-around-always-leads-to-arguments’ story and when it triggered me I took responsibility for that triggering.
I could choose to walk away, soothe myself with deep breathing, and sometimes even join in the silliness!
I know that when these thoughts are attached to strong emotions, they feel completely true and it’s hard to disbelieve them, but they are only one interpretation of what’s going on.
You can decide whether they are helpful or not and whether you are going to heed them.
4. Stop “Shoulding” yourself.
It’s time to eliminate the word should from your vocabulary. Many of us use it all the time, piling unhelpful pressure and guilt upon our shoulders. How often do you say: I should, I must, I have to, I need to as you go about your day?
And how does that make you feel? Do you spring into action joyfully? Probably not.
What if you used the word ‘could’ instead?
I could make those phone calls now. I could visit my mother. I could finish this document today.
Notice how much lighter this feels, and how much more likely you are to do The Thing when you are using could instead of should.
So, next time you are feeling stressed or fearful notice the words you are using. Stop shoulding yourself and start coulding yourself instead.
5. What do you need right now?
When you are rushing around, dealing with the demands of life, do you put other people’s needs before your own? At work, at home, or with your family and friends?
This drop of calm is to stop and ask the question, what does my body need right now?
Do you need more sleep, a glass of water, do you need to get outside in the fresh air?
Do you need to stand up and move away from your desk for a few minutes before getting back to work? Do you need to get an eye test? Do you need an evening on the sofa with your partner or kids to watch your favourite box set? Or do you need some alone time?
Get into the habit of asking yourself: What do I need right now? What does my body, my soul, my mind need right now? And if you listen carefully, you might be surprised by the answer.
Learning to tune into yourself and your body like this means you are able to manage your energy far more effectively. Managing our energy helps us deal with all the day to day activities and demands with more patience, resilience and balance. What’s not to like about that?
6. Experiment with Trust
Many women grow up deciding that to be safe, get stuff done and be approved of, they need to be in control of themselves, the world around them, and even other people. We become control freaks, needing to micro-manage everything to make sure that things run smoothly. This awareness of what’s going on around us, this hypervigilance to what needs doing, what we need to control is a big drain on our energy. Can you relate to this?
Furthermore, when things don’t go the way we wanted or planned, we get anxious, stressed and sometimes downright stroppy. We end up acting in reactive ways that we later regret.
Instead we could start believing that everything is going to be OK. I know this is a massive change for many of us, because our whole belief system that needs to shift. But we can start with five minutes at a time and slowly bring back a sense of trust and faith in ourselves. And ironically, this very letting go of control, gives us a different, but I would argue, more powerful sense of being in control. (You’ll have to believe me until you’ve tried it a few times!)
To experiment with trust, take a deep breath and let go of your need to be in control. Ask yourself: “What if, in the next five minutes I could trust that everything is going to be OK?”
Breathe and trust that you have the competencies, skills, courage and resources to deal with whatever comes up.
You are just one person with one of many interpretations of the best way to do something, and in reality you don’t always know best.
- Sometimes the chaotic way children do things, brings about a more positive result (if we let them).
- Sometimes trusting that a lastminute.com colleague really can get that task done on time without your direction will bring positive results that you hadn’t even considered.
- Sometimes, letting go of the responsibility for everything means you can focus on what’s most important. It could be life-changing.
Go on, give it a try, and start with just five minutes a day.
7. What did you do well today?
As humans we tend to focus on the negative. It’s what has kept us safe for so long; scientists call it the negativity bias. To counter this, a good habit to get into is to take a couple of moments to really appreciate what you did well today.
Alongside all the ‘shitty stuff’ that you want to change, there are many little things, and a few very big things that you’ve done well today.
- Have you kept your children alive?
- Did you take time to speak to a colleague when he was upset?
- Did you pay that bill on time?
- Did you smile at a stranger?
- Did you drive your children to school, or ask about their day?
- Did you move over when you heard the police car siren?
I know life is not all gold stars and awards, but we have stopped noticing all the important daily things that we do well.
Next time you tie your shoelaces notice how fast, nimble and amazing your fingers are.
Next time you go to bed feeling like you’ve failed your children go through the day and count all the ways you’ve loved and supported them. Yes, you may have done some things or not done some things which make you feel bad, but that number will be far less than all the good stuff.
Trust me on this.
If I could visit you in your head I would be able list over 100 things you’ve done well today and there will only be about five that we could call ‘negative’. Stop focusing on the five negative ones and savour all the other things you are doing.
All these ideas take less than five minutes a day, and by experimenting with them you can find out which work best for you. With practice they could become powerful tools for a calmer, happier and more fruitful life.
Want more daily drops of calm?
Thea Jolly is one of our Certified Women’s Coaches, and is an in-house coach on our Lead the Change and Be Powerful Programmes.
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Latest posts by Thea Jolly (see all)
- Guest post: 7 daily strategies to reduce overwhelm - August 13, 2019
- Guest post: What to do when emotions take over - February 13, 2019
- How to get rid of self-critical thoughts for good - October 23, 2018