Overwhelmed. A swirl of problems.

One Thing After Another—When Everything Seems to Be Wrong

Last week was a stressful week. I had several “emergencies” at work, and in the midst of it all, my computer stopped working and we had some plumbing issues. Everything seemed to be going wrong—any little thing that happened at that point seemed to be just one more insurmountable problem. Of course none of these problems were unsolvable, let alone tragic, but it was easy to get into the mindset that the world was against me and nothing was right. When you start to feel like this, it’s important to step back and think about your life in a holistic way and gain some perspective. There are very few phases in your life when nothing is wrong. It’s important to learn to roll with the punches and think about life’s hurdles as something you just need to address—sometimes daily. When you get into the “nothing is right“ mindset, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because you think that nothing is right, you find that everything is wrong when, in reality, very little is wrong. Perspective is one of those things that’s easy to talk about but difficult to practice. Stepping back and focusing on all the good things in your life is critical to having the proper perspective of life‘s challenges.

Feeling overwhelmed

When you have multiple challenges, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and emotionally fragile so that any little hiccup has a significant impact on your emotional state. When you’re overwhelmed it’s often difficult to calmly develop a plan for addressing your challenges and prioritizing your time. Many people take some time to process and come to terms with what they’re going through or to shift gears emotionally. Some people are better at dealing with this than others, and some even thrive while living hectic lives filled with multiple problems. If you’re not among those people, you have to be intentional about how to deal with being overwhelmed, recognize when it is happening, and use the tools at your disposal to cope with the problems and the feelings the challenges create. Part of being overwhelmed entails facing difficulties when doing simple things: you become like deer in the headlights, frozen and unable to move (or make progress solving our problems).  You’re also less likely to be aware of your emotional states and how to address them. Walking away from your desk (or wherever you are), taking a deep breath, and thinking specifically about the good things in your life will help provide the necessary perspective and is a crucial first step. Then, rather than fighting fires, you can develop a plan that involves priorities and actions. Once you have achieved some positive momentum, the feeling of being overwhelmed will start to dissipate.

Being intentional about perspective

When you feel like nothing is right, perspective is everything. You need to go from the delusional state of only seeing the bad things in your life and catastrophizing them to a balanced and mindful state that enables you to see all the parts of your life and avoid labelling or judging them. This allows you to see past the challenging parts of your life: instead of mentally labeling them “intractable” or “wrong,” you view them as one more component of your life that requires your attention. When you feel overwhelmed, it’s very natural to catastrophize—to see challenges as catastrophes. Of course, sometimes they are particularly challenging, but allowing yourself to go into a “nothing is right” mind frame only hurts your ability to address the challenges in a rational and effective manner. Always keeping part of your attention focused on the aspects of your life that give you happiness, peace, and meaning will provide you with the balance you need to move forward and give every area of your life the attention it deserves.

Developing a process for addressing our challenges

Often, when you feel overwhelmed, it’s not because your challenges are too difficult to overcome. Rather, it’s that you don’t know where to start. You need a plan. When the challenges mount, it can be difficult to engage in planning because you feel a sense of urgency to get moving—to start to solve your problems. But because there are so many, you don’t know where to start. You may end up doing nothing, or you may “fight fires” and address the challenge associated with “whoever is yelling the loudest.” This is not likely to be the most logical starting place. It’s important to have a process in place that allows you to prioritize your tasks and develop an effective approach to what you spend your time on. That process starts with your criteria for what to include in your plans. The following questions are intended to be a starting point for building this set of criteria. You will likely have others, but these are important to include in your list.

  • Will it contribute to my priorities? This is the number one question that you should ask yourself. Many people may come to you with intense urgency and make you believe that you have do something now. Your initial response should always be, no I don’t. Until you see that it supports what you’re trying to achieve, it’s not your problem.
  • Will it contribute to the priorities of the boss? When we work for someone else, it’s not always about us. It’s often important to address challenges because doing so is important to your boss or will help your organization. Not only does being a team player help make your organization joyful and meaningful to work for, but it also helps you achieve your priorities in the long run.
  • Is there another reason I should take on the challenge? Sometimes, a challenge arises that doesn’t support your priorities or the priorities of your boss/organization, but we find that we should address it anyway. Reasons for this may include: (a) it will affect you negatively if you don’t, (b) it will affect someone you care about, or (c) addressing it will result in a significant positive impact on the community/universe (i.e., it’s the right thing to do).

Once you apply your criteria and narrow down your list of challenges, you must prioritize. This requires a second tier of criteria related to timing—how soon do you have to address something? I often start my day by looking at my to-do list and identifying the items that are time-sensitive and that I need to address today (or soon). I do this based not on the sense of urgency their source expresses but on a rational assessment of how my timing fits its timeline. Then I identify tasks associated with longer-term projects that support one of the above criteria and carve out some time for them. Very often, I stop there. If something doesn’t make my daily list for a week, I reassess the need to work on it and often drop it from my overall to-do list. Now I have a specific set of tasks that I will work on today. I put the rest out of my mind.

Taking a break from our challenges

When I feel completely overwhelmed, it can be helpful to take a break from everything. This may entail something as simple getting up and going for a brief walk or as serious as taking a mental health day. It may be a short pause to watch a goofy video on YouTube, listen to some music, or a quick perusal of social media. The important thing is to take your mind off your problems and the mental states they have triggered. Getting some distance from your problems allows you to leave the siege mentality behind and think about other things. However, it would be all too easy to continue focusing on your problems while taking a break. It’s important not to allow yourself to continue obsessing, worrying, and labeling. You need to be disciplined regarding where you let your thoughts go and keeping them someplace positive. The break should not just be a physical break from work; it must be a mental and emotional break as well.

Breaks are important not only as reprieves during the day; your overnight breaks and days off are equally important. In the “always connected” culture in which we live, it’s possible to never really take a break. Parts of your brain may be always thinking about checking email or how to get through everything on your plate. Allowing yourself a significant amount of time away from your challenges can not only provide you with the balanced perspective that you need, it can also give you fresh ideas and new ways of tackling your challenges. When you’re not consciously engaged with challenges, your subconscious is still at work. The mental break allows the conscious mind to be open to new and different ways of looking at things in the subconscious. A clean break overnight or during the weekend also allows you to build up the emotional reserves that are necessary to come back at the challenges with renewed energy and a can-do outlook.

When everything seems to be wrong, it’s almost never as bad as it seems. Give yourself permission to live your life with a positive spirit and a light heart.

Not Now

How high can the pile go, and can I bear the weight?
I’ve gone with the flow, but now I know, that I’m at my limit.
I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll face it later. Don’t talk to me about it now.
I’ve had enough—more than enough, and don’t want more. Not now.

What is it about these problems; these thorns, these voices, these cries?
Yipping in my ear, nipping at my heels, tearing at my skin…
They’re just problems. I’ve faced them all, again and again,
   one hundred times before. But I can’t face more. Not now.

Each new problem tears at my soul, and it seems my goal, is only to stop.
I close my eyes. I measure my breath, and the tightness in my chest, abates.
But then they come, like raindrops of pressure, to snap me back to stress.
I’m overwhelmed. I’m spent. I’m done. I can’t even think—not now.

Then I shut down, not by choice, not by want, but by necessity.
Staring ahead but unseeing. Unknowing. Not wanting to know.
I crawl into my cave. I hate my cave, but there I am,
    and there I’ll be. I don’t want to see, anyone. Not now.

But after a time, with blinking eyes, my soul bounces back.
Not with a roar, but as a summer breeze, that dances the leaves,
   and I come back. My tentative steps, a whisper of pep,
   and I’m back. I’m not overwhelmed.

Not now.

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One comment

  • Timothy Wiley June 13, 2022   Reply →

    I completely agree with you advice on how to deal with those periods in life when everything seems to be going wrong. From the Eastern perspective, every important thing that happens in life is due to karma, we have lived thousands of times before and have run up a spiritual credit card of good deeds and bad deeds. Good deeds produce good karma: good health, wealth, harmonious human relations, etc. Bad deeds produce bad karma: poor health, poverty, stormy human relations, etc. Life is always a mixture of good and bad karma because the Lord is shaping each soul towards a certain destination and a life of completely bad karma would lead to total despair and lack of progress. There are rainy days and sunny days and if one just waits long enough the weather will change.

    The important thing to realize is that the events of life are meaningful, they are part of long range plan, we are being “nudged” in certain directions by our Lord (Buddha, Krishna, Allah…) who hopes that we will awaken someday to our true Spiritual Home. The Lord is very patient, if not in this lifetime, maybe in the one to follow.

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