How To Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

She's not overwhelmed, and neither is the goose. photo by Thermodynamix

She’s not overwhelmed, and neither is the goose. (photo by Thermodynamix)

“Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.”
~ William J. Clinton

You know what’s exciting?

Being overwhelmed is impossible if you’re in the present moment.

I’m not talking about your physical presence, which is always in the present moment, but your mental presence, which can travel far back in time or well into the future. If your mind is in the present moment, and not looking ahead, overwhelm cannot touch you.

I’m not throwing cheap words at you: there are specific boundaries and realities of the present moment that, if accepted, make overwhelm impossible. Literally.

It would be naive to think that we could always live the present moment. We have plans, dreams, ideals, and expectations that all live outside of this moment in time. They live anywhere from 30 years from now to the very next moment.

This upcoming solution is not something that needs to be maintained. Your mind can’t always be in the present, or else you wouldn’t do important things like plan and think about your future. Instead of trying to maintain a present mindset, consider employing it when your mind is overwhelmed in a chaotic web of emotions, uncertainties, and to-dos.  

Overwhelm Is A Poison

When overwhelm strikes, it’s like a poisoned blade in that the first strike is not the most dangerous part. The danger comes from the lingering poisonous mindset that begins to spread through your consciousness. It’s the mindset that you must deal with all of your problems now, the reality of your limitations and focus be damned.

How can you stop feeling overwhelmed? The antidote is exactly contrast to the poison of its blade. Enter the present moment.

What It Means To Enter The Present Moment

If your mind is to be in the present moment, it means accepting a few harsh, yet oddly comforting realities. You’ll see what I mean as you read this list.

Realities of the present moment:

  • You can only do one thing right now. If you try to multi-task, you’ll be much less effective.
  • Your problems and worries aren’t going away, even if you worry about them really hard right now. This gives you permission to let them go and focus on what you can do now. You can’t fix them all now and you won’t forget about them, so you’re free to focus elsewhere.
  • The best you can do is the best you can do. That is not a worthless platitude: the best you can do is your unchanging ceiling. It’s good to have a ceiling, because if you didn’t, it would be logical to feel the pressure of not being able to get all of these things taken care of; it would be theoretically possible. But since you have a clearly defined ceiling, you’re free to walk away from that pressure. If something is impossible to do, then there is no benefit in beating yourself up for not doing it.

I’m an avid basketball player, and I’ve noticed there are some players who seem to play in slow-motion (i.e., they’re not very fast), but are very effective. You’ll see this guy methodically and predictably slog into the lane and make a predictable basket. Afterwards, the defending team feels as if they should have been able to stop him because it was so predictable and slow, but they couldn’t for some reason. It’s because he’s good at the fundamentals, and calmly executes what he knows to work.

This is like life.

It’s the methodical, seems-like-it-shouldn’t-be-effective focused (single-tasking) work that drives success. Success is found and overwhelm is lost when you ignore these types of thoughts:

  • “That idea doesn’t feel revolutionary. I’ll write later.”
  • “Yes, I could straighten my bookshelf right now, but I’ve got bills to pay, emails to send, and I forgot about calling Jim.”
  • “Now isn’t the best time to work more on the project. I’ve got so much else to do.”

The Myth Of The “Supertask”

Not many people consciously realize this, but you will immediately understand it’s truth: when you’re overwhelmed, the requirement for taking action goes up. Let me explain.

When the mind is overloaded with “stuff,” it enters into a panicked state. It knows it can’t handle everything right now. This turns the mind into a helpless victim, calling out for help. Only, it isn’t calling out for a superhero to save the day—it’s calling out for a supertask. It wants the one perfect task that will make it feel productive and on track again.

Overwhelm is an emotional problem, not a logistical one. When you consider the truths of reality and limitations in the list above, the objective best action is to start doing things one at a time. That’s why we have this emotional response: we want to find a task that takes away our overwhelm. I’ve said before that this is why we distract ourselves, and that is true, but I failed to mention that distraction is our second preference. In truth, we’d LOVE to make progress on our important goals and tasks, but in our panicked state of mind, we’ve created a standard which no important task can meet. 

But distracting, meaningless tasks can meet this lofty requirement. By making us temporarily forget about our problems and infinite to-do list, they make us feel better, and not so overwhelmed. Of course, this is like a credit card shopping spree: you’ll get the bill later.

How can I feel good about writing an article when I need to do laundry, fix dinner, and finally start on that other project too? The task of writing an article is VERY valuable to me and my path in life, and yet, it has no chance of being enough to satisfy my emotional problem of overwhelm. In theory.

In reality, once I begin a productive task and focus on it, my sense of overwhelm does fade. It just doesn’t seem like it will at first. This is why I stress starting so much, because once you start something, the dynamic changes. Your predictions about what it would be like are made irrelevant by experiencing the reality of the situation (which is good, because our predictions are too often inaccurate).

The Solution Is Found In Childhood

Remember when you were a kid, and your only job was to have fun? That’s how my childhood seemed. Maybe I was lucky. 

That time with fewer responsibilities taught me more about how to live than adulthood did. As a kid, I was very adept at focusing on video games. I didn’t care about anything else. Today, it’s more difficult to do that because I’ve got a stack of responsibilities waiting impatiently for me to finish “wasting time.” Sigh.

Childhood Stephen was smarter than he seems though, because while he didn’t do a whole lot of productive things, he did manage to focus on one thing and not worry about the rest. The key to his success (playing games?) was that he had no other worries. The key to our success as adults is to neglect all but one of our responsibilities for the moment, which goes back to the realities discussed earlier.

Realities of the present moment:

  • You can only do one thing right now. 
  • Your problems and worries aren’t going away, even if you worry about them really hard right now. 
  • The best you can do is the best you can do. 

When you understand and believe in these truths, you’ll be able to focus on one task in the present moment. Overwhelm will leave you as quickly as it arrives, because again, it can’t exist inside a mind that is focused on the present. You might also like these posts on how to pick one task and how to focus in the moment.

The subscriber-only message on 6/17/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

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