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You’ve probably heard that oft-repeated, likely untrue anecdote about frogs: If they start out sitting in cool water, and the temperature is gradually raised bit by bit, they’ll never jump out. They’ll end up boiling themselves to death without ever realizing it.
And now you’re thinking, “Wow, super weird and depressing intro to a blog! Thanks, Rachel.” I know! Forgive me. It’s just … I AM that frog sometimes.
Personally, I feel like this is exactly what getting into a state of deep overwhelm is like.
One day I wake up to find myself anxious, panicked, rushed, and overwhelmed (aka, neck deep in boiling water), and I can’t tell when it started. It came on so gradually that I didn’t notice until I was already way far gone!
I share this today because, quite frankly, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately, and it is so uncomfortable.
It’s hard to know what to do when you’re in this state — you certainly can’t think very clearly, and you have NO idea where to begin unwinding the mess you’re in.
And when you feel like that, it’s easy to shut down and do nothing … which inevitably makes the overwhelm worse because more things pile on top of you while you’re blocking out the world.
So, I thought I would share my go-to move for getting out of overwhelm. It’s the kind of thing that ALL of us can do, and in my experience it always helps alleviate the worst of the pressure. And it’s probably not what you expect.
SKIMMING OFF THE TOP
Like pretty much everyone I know, I often feel pressed for time. And in that state, I tend to only focus on the necessities. I get my work done, make sure the dog is taken care of, and focus on eating well and drinking enough liquids.
I feel like I’m very often skimming off the top of my responsibilities and all of the things I could be doing; as if on any given day I’m getting maybe 20% of what ideally could be done, done.
Of course, the problem with skimming is that, eventually, the little things that seem sort of innocuous — the mess in my closet, that pile of unopened mail, those receipts that need organizing — add up to the point that I’m nearly surrounded by things I haven’t given proper attention.
And that, I find, is when overwhelm really hits me: when I feel assaulted on all sides by my daily responsibilities AND all the little crap I haven’t done.
I’m a big believer in the idea that the state of our outer world reflects the state of our inner world. If our space (home, office, car, whatever) feels chaotic, then we very likely feel chaotic, too.
It’s hard to focus or feel at ease when your space feels chaotic. Which, of course, makes it harder to get even those basic responsibilities accomplished. How are we supposed to do our best work or take proper care of ourselves when our energy is being drained by all of the nagging to-dos?
Cue massive emotional breakdown. Because now I can’t even do what I’m supposed to be doing, let alone focus on the things I should be doing.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, CLEAN OUT YOUR CLOSET
When I get to this point, I realize that the very best thing I can do is to find a way to release the worst of the pressure and resistance I’m feeling. It’s like I literally need to let some air out of my valves.
And the easiest way to bring some peace back to my inner world is to spend a little time bringing peace to my outer world.
It sounds overly simple, but that’s why it works!
Whether you can see it or not, energy tends to get stuck (in us, and in our environment) and can start to fester. Often the quickest way to get energy moving again is to literally start clearing it out.
So, here’s a list of things that I tend to focus on when I know I need to clean up my energy and get back on track:
- Clean out my closet — Donate anything that needs to go, and generally reorganize and straighten things.
- Clean out the fridge/pantry — All of those old leftover containers, random bottles of expired condiments, peanut butter with one dried scoop left at the bottom … toss it out!
- Sort and file receipts/piles of mail — Bonus if you also shred old documents that are collecting dust.
- Call customer service — At any given time I feel like adults have at least ONE company they’re procrastinating calling to sort out an annoying issue, am I right?
- Dispose of light bulbs/batteries — You can’t just throw these things out, so they tend to sit around the house in weird piles. Bag them up and take them to a place like Home Depot, who recycles them for you.
- Get rid of old electronics/cords — One of the best space-clearing things I ever did was take a pile of old gadgets, cords, and cables to Best Buy, who accepts this sort of crap.
- Clean out my car/get an oil change — Or, you know, pay for the car to get cleaned while I read a book. That works, too.
- Buy gifts for upcoming events — I can’t tell you how many times I have to remind myself to buy something for a wedding or baby shower. It eats up SO much energy.
- Organize my bathroom cabinets — I feel like every woman has a cabinet where beauty products go to die.
- Tackle the random piles of miscellaneous crap — I know you have these, too. It’s just random assortments of things that have been sitting in one spot so long you’ve forgotten they don’t actually need to be there.
- Clean out your computer/email inbox — Digital space is a thing, too!
This is far from an exhaustive list, but you get the idea!
MAKE A DAY OF IT
Obviously you can’t be expected to do ALL of that in one day. I mean, you could certainly try if you were feeling ambitious and wanted to knock a bunch of things out in one fell swoop.
But I’d start with scheduling an hour or two and focusing on one thing — either the easiest thing for you to start with, or maybe the thing that’s draining your energy the most.
Set a timer, if you need to! This doesn’t need to drag on forever.
Whenever I do this, I always find so much relief on the other side. It leaves me feeling lighter (which is no coincidence, because I’ve literally just released a bunch of pent-up energy that was weighing me down) and more accomplished … which then, as luck would have it, makes it easier to tackle the bigger responsibilities with less anxiety and overwhelm.
And this works even if you aren’t feeling overwhelmed.
Give it a whirl if you’ve been feeling stuck, confused, lethargic, or just generally sort of “blah.” All of those are signs that your energy is stagnant, and this is an easy way to get things flowing.
ONE LAST THING
Is this the answer to all overwhelm? No, of course it isn’t. Overwhelm is certainly exacerbated by outer chaos, but your outer circumstances aren’t the cause of overwhelm.
True freedom from overwhelm (which is a form of anxiety, which at its most base level is just fear) is an inside job. Life will always be chaos, in one way or another, and the mark of an evolved person is one who can reach a place of inner calm regardless of what’s happening outside of them. That’s something we work on in coaching (and that can take a long time to master, as I’m clearly evidence of!).
But can you release some of the pressure by clearing your space? Absolutely! And with that space, is it easier to calm down and get back into a state of flow? Yes. Just don’t let this be your only solution for managing overwhelm!
So, what kind of space are YOU going to clear this week? Personally, I think I’m going to tackle my car and sorting through receipts. Come share what yours are, in the comments!
Rachel (& Kristen)
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This couldn’t have come at a better time – I’m currently reading this at my temporary bridge job, which is finishing in 2 weeks. I have been that frog for the last month! I have no clue whether they’ll keep me on, or what I will do if they don’t. Will be clearing out my wardrobe later; I feel a little less overwhelmed already!
I’m glad this helped, Sophie! It feels good to DO something sometimes, when we feel unable to take action in other ways.
It’s so funny to see this in my inbox, it’s precisely the story of my week just gone. I had one day without my daughter and instead of sitting around and vegging, I tackled all sorts of long-awaited tasks. The whole time I was still so stressed though, as if I was constantly afraid I wouldn’t get it all finished. I suppose that’s the inner peace part… Thanks for articulating this so well! I’m going to send it to my husband as an explanation of my behaviour this past week haha
You’re welcome! And again, it’s really about the intention going in to it. Obviously if you’re afraid you won’t get it all done, it’s not doing to decrease your stress all that much! There’s a much bigger conversation to be had about relaxing and trusting that everything is working out, regardless of what you do or don’t get done (I’d recommend that episode about Outrageous Openness if you haven’t listened yet). 🙂
Such a timely post for me. Last Thursday I actually recruited some help to clean out my bedroom. I was tired of waking up to a messy, cluttered room and then dreading heading back there from work. I enlisted help with dusting all surfaces and closet space, cleaning out clothes I didn’t wear anymore, move my furniture around, put up new lights and sweep the floor. It felt great and money well spent. I was able to get this particular housework done in 2 hours with some help whereas I had put off these tasks for months. Initially I got some resistance from housemates about paying someone to help me clean my room, but I knew it wasn’t going to get it done otherwise and I knew my housemates weren’t going to help. In the end it was well worth the money paying a stranger and having less to stress about and actually do.
I’m so glad that you didn’t listen to your housemates, Sofia! It might not have made logical sense to them why you’d choose to do that, but this example proves that if something helps you feel more energetic and at ease, then it doesn’t *need* to make sense to other people in order to feel worth it to you.
Damn I needed this this morning. I’ve designated today as a cleanup my physical space day because as I’ve gotten more and more overwhelmed it’s gotten messier and messier. My desire to purge the mess isn’t about anything other than letting go and in so doing letting go of some of my overwhelm. Great post!!
I’m so glad that the timing of this blog was exactly right for you! 🙂
Totally agree, this fits with my life experience too. I’ve actually found that part of how you’re feeling relates to what is in your eyeline that you’re only subconsciously aware of, like what’s off toward the left or right of your vision. If a big mess is in either place, you subconsciously start feeling crowded and panicked. If a pretty picture of a path to a beach is there, or a neon glowing speaker or something, you may feel excited and ready for the day (both examples from things actually in my room.)
Great blog, as usual!
Yeah, this is a great point! We forget that 95% of what our brains are processing isn’t part of our conscious awareness; and yet we can still *feel* the effects of that unconscious processing.
I agree with this post completely. I have found that when I am overwhelmed it does make me also feel better to clear the space in my house. I can think more clearly when my house is more organized. A matter of fact, I even sleep better when things seem open and clear. Maybe it is an energy thing.
I totally agree about the sleeping better thing! It makes sense that if your environment is less “busy” your brain would have an easier time relaxing, and therefore would make it easier to sleep. It probably goes way deeper than that, too!
Sorry, but the frog story is a myth! 😉 Nice metaphor and great blog post though!
Haha! I heard that on a podcast, so I’m not at all surprised that it’s more of an urban legend than scientific fact. But as long as it works as a metaphor, I’m all good! 😉
Great post Rachel! I’m inspired to do some spring cleaning now. I’m in a similar season, and found cleaning up my desk and desktop to be very cathartic. I also need a clean kitchen in the morning. Great list of “swallow the frog” to-do’s – bringing it full circle