You skipped breakfast, your boss moved your deadline to the end of the day and you forgot to wear deodorant (again!). What do you do when it all feels like too much? Start by taking a deep breath and asking yourself a few of these questions.
1. Why Am I Overwhelmed?
"Overwhelm" is increasingly common as demands on human attention increase exponentially. The human brain just wasn't designed to handle the environment we inhabit. For the vast majority of world history, human life -- both culture and biology -- was shaped by scarcity. Food, clothing, shelter, tools and pretty much everything else had to be farmed or fabricated, at a very high cost in time and energy. Knowledge was power, and it was hard to come by; for centuries, books had to be copied by hand and were rare and precious. Even people were scarce: Friends and relatives died young (as late as 1900, life expectancy in the United States was approximately 49 years). This kind of scarcity still rules the world's poorest regions. But in the developed world, hundreds of millions of us now face the bizarre problem of surfeit. Yet our brains, instincts and socialized behavior are still geared to an environment of lack. The result? Overwhelm -- on an unprecedented scale.
-- Martha Beck
2. Am I Really Busy Or Does It Just Feel This Way?
Most of us judge how busy we are by how much we have to do. When there are too many things to do, we think we're busy, and when there isn't much to do, it feels like we're not busy at all. But in fact, we can feel busy when there isn't that much to do, and we can feel relaxed even when there's a lot going on. The states of "busy" and "not busy" aren't defined by how many things there are to do. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as multitasking; the brain can tend to only one thing at a time. Being too busy or not being busy is an interpretation of our activity. Busy-ness is a state of mind, not a fact. No matter how much or how little we're doing, we're always just doing what we're doing, simply living this one moment of our lives.
-- Norman Fischer
3. What's The Priority Here?
Think about it: Humans are the only creatures in nature that resist the pattern of ebb and flow. We want the sun to shine all night, and when it doesn't, we create cities that never sleep. Seeking a continuous energetic and emotional high, we use everything from exciting parties to illegal chemicals. But natural ebbs -- the darkness between days, the emptiness between fill-ups, the fallow time between growing seasons -- are the necessary complements of upbeats. They hold a message for us. If you listen at your life's low points, you'll hear it, too. It's just one simple, blessed word: Rest.
-- Martha Beck
4. What If I Don't Have Enough Time?
There are two problems with time. The first one is that after a certain number of hours fatigue inevitably sets in. After that, you make more mistakes, you get into more conflict with co-workers, you're less creative and you're less efficient. The second problem with time is that it's finite, and most of us don't have any of it left to invest. Our dance cards are full. For example, in an effort to get more done, one of the first things we're willing to sacrifice is sleep.
But consider this disturbing fact: Sleeping even a single hour less than our bodies require reduces our cognitive capacity dramatically. Much as we try, we can't fool our bodies. Consider this statistic: Even a single hour less sleep than you need to feel fully rested takes a significant toll on your capacity to think clearly and logically when you're awake. Sacrificing sleep is self-defeating. So, what's the solution? It's not to manage your time better. It's to manage your energy.
-- Tony Schwartz
5. Am I Surrounded By Energy Suckers?
Energy Suckers (a.k.a Negative Nancies, Debbie Downers and Sad Sids). These are the people who find the cloud around every silver lining. If you can't cut them out of your life entirely, turn your interactions with them into a game. When my neighbor says, "I hate this horrible weather!" I say, "Isn't horrible weather great? It means I don't have to wash my car!"
-- Donna Brazile
6. Do I Have to Do It All By Myself?
Insisting on doing everything yourself burdens you and prevents others from feeling valuable and needed. Delegate more at home and at work, and free your time for things you love and excel at.
-- Julie Morgenstern
7. What Would It Take For Me To Just Say No?
Most people claim they give in to sudden requests because they hate letting others down. I say it's more about not disappointing ourselves: We're hooked on feeling needed. If we take a hard look at ourselves, we might see that we unwittingly encourage people to come to us for every little thing. Interruptions can also be a welcome distraction. Faced with an unpleasant task, we're more than happy to turn our attention elsewhere. Finally, we often don't say no because of simple disorganization. In a choppy and shapeless day, we handle disruption immediately because we figure, if not now, when? While it's important to be reasonably accessible to the people you live and work with, you don't want to spend most of your waking hours in helper mode at the expense of completing your own critical tasks. Even if you're in crisis management or, for that matter, if you're a stay-at-home mom, you need to prioritize requests. Otherwise you get trapped in a whirlwind of multitasking where you start many things and finish nothing.
-- Julie Morgenstern
8. Is My Stuff Taking Over My Life?
Every single person I have met tells me not only about their own clutter problems but about those of a family member, or those of a friend. Nobody seems immune. The stories are not dissimilar -- papers and magazines run amok, garages overflow with unopened boxes, kids' toys fill rooms, and closets are so stuffed that it looks like the clothing department of a major retailer is having a fire sale. The epidemic of clutter, the seeming inability to get organized, and the sense that "the stuff" is taking over affects us all. We are at the center of an orgy of consumption, and many are now seeing that this need to own so much comes with a heavy price: kids so overstimulated by the sheer volume of stuff in their home that they lose the ability to concentrate and focus. Financial strain caused by misplaced bills or overpurchasing. Constant fighting because neither partner is prepared to let go of their possessions. The embarrassment of living in a house that long ago became more of a storage facility than a home. This clutter doesn't come just in the form of the physical items that crowd our homes. We are bombarded every day with dire predictions of disaster and face many uncertainties -- some real and many manufactured. Think about the perils that we've been warned about in the last decade alone -- killer bees, Y2K, SARS, anthrax, mad cow disease, avian flu, flesh-eating bacteria... the list goes on and on. We are also faced daily with reports of war, an unstable economy and global terrorism coming very close to home. Surprisingly, this endless barrage (its own kind of clutter) inspires many of the families with whom I work to finally take control of their own clutter. In an unpredictable, dangerous world that is out of their control, they look to their homes for stability -- to get some degree of organization back into their closets, their garages, their home offices, their lives. This quest for organization is a deeply personal response to the feeling that the rest of the world is out of control.
-- Peter Walsh
9. But, I Want So Much. Will I Ever Be Enough?
When we are busy focusing on what we don't have, we don't pay attention to what we do have. Wanting is different from having. Wanting is in the future. It is based on an idea of what might make you happy in five minutes, tomorrow, next week. But having is here, now. Most of us don't let ourselves have what's in front of us, so we're always wanting more. When you don't let yourself have what you already have, you are always hungry, always searching, always restless.
-- Geneen Roth
10. Am I Breaking Out Because I'm Stressed Out?
As the mind-skin connection gains credence, beauty companies have seized on the new marketing opportunity, launching serums and balms that they say cater specifically to the effects of stress on the skin. Without any independent clinical trials to back up these product claims, dermatologists are skeptical about how effective they might be. But doctors do advocate paying extra attention to your skin during tumultuous times. "If you already use acne products, increase the frequency of application when you're entering a stressful period," says Fried. And because skin's immunity is impaired when you're under stress, making you more susceptible to sun damage, he says, it's even more important to apply (and reapply) sunscreen. A bonus: Taking special care with your daily beauty regimen may help soothe your spirits as well as your skin. Fried conducted a study in which 32 women used an alpha hydroxy acid lotion on their faces for 12 weeks. Their skin felt smoother in the end, but the participants also reported feeling happier in general. "As soon as these women saw an improvement in their skin, it fostered a wider-reaching sense of optimism," says Richard Fried, MD, PhD, a dermatologist and clinical psychologist. "Their feelings of stress or depression also decreased because they felt more in control -- over their skin, their bodies, their world."
-- Jenny Bailly
11. Is All Stress Bad?
Short-term stress triggers the production of protective chemicals and increases activity in immune cells that boost the body's defenses; think of it as having your own personal repair crew. "A burst of stress quickly mobilizes this 'crew' to damaged areas where they are likely to be needed," explains Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health. As a result, your brain and body get a boost. A quick surge of stress can stave off disease: Studies suggest that it strengthens the immune system, makes vaccinations more effective, and may even protect against certain types of cancer. Small amounts of stress hormones can also sharpen your memory. In 2009 University at Buffalo researchers found that when rats were forced to swim -- an activity that stresses them out -- they remembered their way through mazes far better than rats that chilled out instead. The key, of course, is balance. Too little stress and you're bored and unmotivated; too much and you become not just cranky but sick. "It's important to pay attention to your stress thermometer," and to stay below the boiling point, explains life coach Ruth Klein, author of The De-Stress Diva's Guide to Life.
-- Melinda Wenner Moyer
12. Is It Better to Fight Anxiety or Is It Okay to Be Nervous?
Accept that you're having an anxiety moment -- trying to squelch or deny it will only make it worse -- and just focus on what's in front of you, says David Barlow, PhD, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. If you're at an interview, meeting or party, listen intently to what the other person is saying. Make eye contact. When it's your turn to speak, be conscious of every word you say. If you're at your desk, respond to overdue e-mails or tackle the pile in your in-box. Whatever you're doing, take a few deep breaths to help let the anxious thoughts and feelings float on by.
-- Naomi Barr
13. How Do I Stop Focusing on the Clock?
The elimination of time from your consciousness is the elimination of ego. It is the only true spiritual practice. Here are three exercises to help you move in this direction:
- Step out of the time dimension as much as possible in everyday life. Become friendly toward the present moment. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed.
- Be present as the watcher of your mind -- of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react.
- Use your senses fully. Be where you are. Look around. Just look, don't interpret. Be aware of the silent presence of each thing. Be aware of the space that allows everything to be. Listen to the sounds; don't judge them. Listen to the silence beneath the sounds. Touch something -- anything -- and feel and acknowledge its Being. Allow the "isness" of all things. Move deeply into the Now.