That feeling that you’re up against a wall and there’s nowhere to go: it’s the worst. It’s enough to keep you up nights, and then you’re sleep deprived, which makes everything look about a hundred times bleaker than it is.
Feelings of overwhelm and “stuckness” do not come from our circumstances; they come from our thoughts. That’s not to say that our circumstances do not trigger feelings of overwhelm and stuckness — they definitely can. The holidays, for example, trigger overwhelm for many of us. That’s because they add that much more to our to-do list.
But it’s the thoughts we’re having about everything on the to-do list that create the feeling of overwhelm, not the to-do list itself.
Now, you can try crossing things off the to-do list to lessen the overwhelm. And it can work, sometimes very well.
But I suggest doing something else first: shifting your energy.
The quality of the energy we bring to our circumstances interacts with those circumstances and transforms them. Sometimes, we try to change circumstances, only to end up in the same energetic space: stagnant, heavy.
So before we go about manipulating our circumstances by crossing things off the to-do list or diving in headfirst to “get it all done,” let’s look at ways to shift our energy.
1) Trim tabs!
Martha Beck wrote this article for O Magazine where she talked about how Buckminster Fuller invented something called the trim tab for large ships. The trim tab is this teeny-tiny rudder placed on the ship’s large rudder that allows the ship to turn with a very slight amount of pressure.
I like to remind myself of trim tabs when everything feels like too much. I don’t have to move the earth in order to create change; I only need to make one tiny change that creates new direction.
Every time I remember trim tabs, I realize that there is NO WAY I can make all the changes I think I need to make right now. And I don’t need to. I just need to focus on one small change that tilts my course in the right direction. And go from there. (As a bonus, thinking TRIM TABS! reminds me that it’s not all up to me. When I make one small choice, other forces are set into motion, and I’m not in control of all of them. This is good news! )
2) Think marathon, not sprint.
Back when I was in life coach training, Pam Slim was teaching us a class on marketing our businesses, and she said, “It’s a lot more helpful to think of marketing as a marathon, not a sprint.”
This knocked me upside the head. At the time, it was quite the revelation for me. I’d always been a sprinter. If I had an idea, I wanted to make it happen, fast. My sprinting ways made me extremely impatient, particularly in my twenties, when I gave up routinely when something I wanted to happen seemed to be “taking too long.”
The fact is, large-scale changes take time. Even small changes often do not occur within a day or a week. Humans are resistant to change (it’s part of our built-in survival mechanism), and change very often takes longer than we predict. (I usually find that if I want it to happen in six months, it will actually happen in a year. But it will happen.)
Remembering “marathon, not sprint” — taking the long view — reminds us that progress is not always immediately apparent, and allows us to take the pressure off.
I bet if I challenged you to write down all the progress you’ve made in your life in the past five years, you could easily fill an entire page without having to think too hard. But you probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize all of it while it was “progress in process.”
3) Move your body.
This is one of the simplest ways to shift energy — the trick is, you can’t let your mind talk you out of doing it! Taking a ten-minute walk and focusing on your stride, your breath visible in the cold air, the dog in the sweater who just trotted by, is an amazing way to get out of your mind and press the reset button. But your mind will tell you it won’t make a difference, there’s no time, yadda yadda. Don’t listen to it!
Taking a shower is one of my favorite ways to shift my energy. Even washing my hands can do it. And doing dishes! Yes, I actually enjoy doing dishes because it allows me to be in proximity to water. Standing near a body of water, or sitting near an aquarium, can do it, too. Or just drinking a glass of water. Again, give it a chance — don’t let your mind talk you out of it! It works.
5) Write it down.
There’s power to seeing something in words, on paper. (The act of moving your hand across paper also ties into point #3 — it moves your body. It’s a much more physical act than typing.) When you can get whatever’s keeping you up at night out of your head and allow it to be held by the paper, you’re reminded that it is not bigger than you are.
Another way to approach this is to do what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice.” Just write what you see, what’s in front of you right now. “My Christmas-tree-scented candle is flickering; my cat is staring out the window even though it’s dark outside; there’s a Jackie Chan marathon on TV and I have the sound down; I can hear the downstairs neighbor coughing.”
Just keep your hand moving and keep on writing whatever engages your five senses. This creates an anchor for your mind, putting you solidly in the present moment, the only place where you actually DO have any power.
Once you’ve shifted your energy — even if just a bit — you can take a look at that to-do list.
What are some ways you’ve noticed that help you shift your energy when you’re overwhelmed or in a stagnant place? I’d love to learn more.