by Rory Hunter, Founding Board Member of WABT
Life can be overwhelming. Balancing and juggling everything on your plate can seem like an impossible task at times. An overwhelming feeling can lead to stress, anxiety, fear and a sense of paralysis, like being frozen in place and unable to string thoughts or actions together, much less think coherently or rationally. Overwhelmed is defined as being buried or drowned under a huge mass, to be completely defeated.
I have lived with and through some overwhelming situations in my own life: the cancer diagnosis of an infant child, his subsequent neurologic issues and special needs, and my husband’s battle with brain cancer and his death, leaving me a widow with three young children at the age of 41. Yet, I have survived to tell the tale. Here are five tips I have used when dealing with life trying to bury and drown me.
Yes, I know it is a bit cliché and overused when people say to “just breathe” during difficult situations, but I am not referring to a stubbed toe or a bad grade. I am talking about the point when you literally cannot breathe because the situation you are in has paralyzed you so completely, your mind has gone blank and your fight or flight reflexes have left your body. I can remember two times in my life when my blood ran cold, I heard ringing in my ears and my body was in shock not from what was happening to me, but as a physical response to a situation I was in or news I was given. The only thing I could control and concentrate on in that instant was my breath. According to a paper published in Science, researchers led by Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, have been studying the effect of breathing patterns on a group of neurons in the brain stem. Their findings state that “this liaison to the rest of the brain means that if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyper-activate the brain. So you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind.”
When you can think of nothing else to do, sit and focus on your breath. My go-to breathing pattern, when I feel overwhelmed, which manifests itself in me as a pressure like a boulder sitting on my chest, is to do a 4 count square breath. I imagine tracing a square with my breath, and I breath 4 counts up one side, hold my breath 4 counts across the top side, exhale 4 counts down a side, and hold 4 counts across the bottom of the square. I repeat this pattern until I feel calm and the pressure has lessened. Another breathing pattern that others have used that seems helpful is the 4-7-8 breathing pattern. Inhale four counts, hold breath for 7 counts and exhale for 8 counts.
Inventory and prioritize:
I distinctly remember sitting in the surgery waiting room at UCLA Medical Center listening to the surgeon recap my husband’s brain surgery. When he said the words “stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme” and “6 months to a year to live” my brain immediately started taking inventory and categorizing things that were essential and nonessential in my life. Unfortunately, it usually takes a crisis to get our priorities straight. That PTA president position I had just committed to for the year instantly seemed irrelevant. The “to-do” list of home repairs could definitely wait. The multitude of activities, sports, classes had to be minimized. It was time to round the wagons and focus on family, treatments and survival. Nothing else mattered.
Practice the art of saying “No.” My grandmother always told me that I needed to use the word “No” more, but I felt a great sense of guilt whenever I told someone “No”. I felt like no one could do the job like I could, or that no one would step up to do it. Guess what? No one is a superwoman. There will be someone else who will say “Yes”, and it doesn’t matter if someone does it differently than you. Experiencing a crisis in your life forces you to practice the art of saying “No,” and it is unexpectedly freeing. I have found some very gracious ways of turning down a social engagement, volunteer opportunity or even a family obligation. Try some of these on for size…”Bummer, I wish I could but …” “That sounds awesome, unfortunately…” “I would have loved to, however…”
Ask and accept help:
I was raised to be strong, suck it up, and carry on. Don’t share your burdens, do not show vulnerability, and my goodness, never ask for help. What I have found both during my son’s cancer diagnosis and my husband’s is that there is beauty and strength in a supportive community. Think about how it makes you feel when you help someone. That warm, loving feeling you get when you have done a good deed for a fellow human. Receiving help is not only about you. When you open yourself up to receive help, you provide others the opportunity to give. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for or receive help. It is promoting the flow of love.
Accepting help has made me more empathetic and better equipped to care for others. During the early days of my son’s diagnosis, hospitalizations and treatments, a friend of the family had set up a meal train for us. Knowing that we were in a very emotionally and medically delicate stage, she placed a cooler outside our front door in which people had been instructed to leave food as to not disturb us. I used this same idea of a meal train cooler delivery system several years later when a young mother at our school suddenly lost her husband. The act of giving care is contagious. The more you receive the more you want to give to others.
Take one thing at a time:
During the past 7 years as a widow and the past 16 years as a mom of a child with special needs, I have spoken to, encouraged, and given support to many moms, wives, cancer patients, and widows. My message usually begins with “Take one day at a time, one moment at a time, one step at a time, and one breath at a time.” Don’t project into the future, try your best to stay in the present. Look at the task in front of you. Complete that task and then move on to the next one. Choose something that seems manageable and do that. If things get too overwhelming, just focus on taking one breath at a time (see #1). By doing this you keep yourself moving forward. You prevent yourself from getting stuck on the would haves, could haves, should haves and the what ifs.
Some people are motivated by a to-do list. If you are one of those people, bravo and keep checking off your list. I am not one of those people. A list gives me heart palpitations and increases the likelihood that I will freeze up and get nothing done. Instead, I make a game plan for the day and sometimes the week. For example, last week I knew I needed to get my paperwork organized and sent off to the accountant for taxes. So, I set aside Sunday afternoon in my schedule to get it done. Yes, it was on a mental “to do” list, but I didn’t have to look at it and get stressed out every day. I had planned on when I would tackle the task, which to me feels more manageable. I do the same with mundane tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying, etc. I have a scheduled time for each, so I know that I am only focusing on that task at the moment and not worrying about the million other things that need to get done.
Let go of what you cannot control:
My aforementioned and very wise grandmother had a favorite quote: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Whether you have a particular faith or belief system or a general belief in the universe, utilize that spiritual outlet. I remember posting a comment on social media regarding a negative incident that happened during a charity walk, when my husband was in the middle of massive chemo and radiation treatments. A friend responded encouragingly that I should “release it into the universe.” I am not condoning the use of Facebook to vent our frustrations, but my friend's comment made me realize how liberating it was to release the feelings I had bottled up inside. There are so many things in life that we have no control over, yet we hold on to them and ruminate over them. These thoughts overwhelm us and add to our anxiety and stress.
Spending time in prayer or meditation provides that outlet to unburden my fears and worries that are out of my control. I can release them into the universe and practice replacing those thoughts with gratitude, refocusing my mind on the good and positive in my life. The practice of reframing your thoughts does not need to take up much time, but it does take persistence and habit to make it effective. I usually find that my best prayer time is in the shower or in the car, which some days are the only time I have to myself.
I love this quote from the book Rising Strong by Brene Brown: “We don’t have to do it alone. We were never meant to.” There is power, healing, and comfort in reaching out to God, a friend, or a community. Sometimes it is scary and difficult to be vulnerable. I hesitate to speak or write about my life experiences and the fact that life can be overwhelming, because putting my voice out into the universe is a risk. Yet, we may miss the profound love, strength and support that is a result when We Are Brave Together.