I often see people in my Hertfordshire based clinic struggling with what I call ‘internal chaos’. What do I mean by ‘internal chaos’? I mean when you are overthinking and you feel like there is too much for you to handle – just way too many things that need to be dealt with and too much going on and you’re not too sure where to start with them all. There are far too many of things to be able to even get started on so that causes you then to go on and procrastinate. Then you never get started on anything and that sense of being overwhelmed then tips over the edge and into the lands of anxiety. I have a few strategies that I always share with my clients and today I’m going to share them with you.
It’s a really uncomfortable state to be in and if you can begin to master internal chaos it means that later on when there is that whole bunch of stuff that needs doing simultaneously and they’re all as important as each other, you will have a better strategy for being able to deal with it. The more you practice doing this stuff (the more you really force yourself to put these positive techniques in place) the more your brain starts to learn that these are your default go to settings for the future, so that later on when you are faced with other challenges you won’t go back and sweep into those old habits of becoming overwhelmed and anxious about them. Instead, you’ll think ‘well here’s a few different ways that I can cope with this problem’ and you’ll be able to put that into action.
Just to be clear with any of these strategies it doesn’t take away those times when life presents you wit far too many things that all need to be done at the same time and are all as equally important as each other – life is still going to happen, you can trust me on that one. What it will do is it will give you better strategies to be able to cope when those times come along.
My first piece of advice is to start phrasing thins as ‘how can I…’ Now the reason why I mention this is because very often when we are in a state of feeling overwhelmed our brain tips into asking a why question. When we ask a question that starts with why it very often gets us looking backwards into the past and is often framed negatively. This is really unhelpful! If we ask the how question it gets our brain to think more resourcefully – we actually start thinking about how we can do the thing that we want to be able to do. How questions are infinitely better than asking yourself why you can. With all of the why questions that crop up (‘why is life not fair, why does everybody hate me, why am I a failure, etc) asking yourself ‘how can I’ changes your brain; your brain is now trying to work in a way that makes it a resource for you rather than a sabotage instrument for yourself. You’re not necessarily going get quick answers when you ask yourself a how question – you may have to keep asking it several times over in order to get the answers that you’re looking for. In addition to the words that you use your tonality is important here too. Even in your own head you have a tone of voice and you’ve got to ask the question in the right tone of voice in order to really get the right results from it.
My next tip is to that we need to breathe! Breathing is obviously important (to survive) but often when we’re in a state of stress our breathing pattern is one of the first things to go a bit squiffy. We might start to shallow breathe instead of taking in nice deep breaths that properly oxygenate our brain and our body. You might be thinking ‘this is such a small thing, is it really all that important?’ and the answer is yes it is! If you start to deprive your brain of oxygen it’s not going to be in the best state for thinking and being resourceful. We need to be able to provide our brains with oxygen if we want to function properly, and if we’re in a state of chaos we definitely also want to be able to access a high-performance state at that moment in time. Being able to ask yourself even the ‘how can I’ question will rely an awful lot on whether or not you are resourceful enough to be breathing and oxygenating your brain to remember to ask it.
Breathing is really important and as you take time to consciously breathe you might as well practice a little bit of mindfulness too. Maybe you can take a moment to just focus on your breath, get into your senses, focus on what’s going on in the world around you and notice that it’s maybe not as chaotic as what’s going on in your thinking. Having that moment of calm reflection can again often lend itself to us becoming a little bit better resourced in coming up with ideas and solutions that we might need. We need to give ourselves a break from what it is that we want to do in order to find the information or the solutions that we’re looking for. When we take a moment to breathe and relax its much more likely that we’re going to be able to come up with those internal resources that we need and be able to put ourselves into a better state for finding a solution.
You have to come up with multiple solutions to your problems – just doing a little bit of brainstorming can be really helpful for you. Are all of the solutions always going to be the right fit? No, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you turn your brain into a problem-solving machine instead of a complaining one which is always learning about being stuck and things being bad for you. An exercise like a brainstorm or mind map where you draft down some ideas on a page about the different ways in which you can solve the various different challenges that there are can give you more hope and can help you to feel more optimistic about moving in the right direction.
I also like to think about ‘will this matter in X number of years, days or hours?’ Very often problems are not as long-standing as we might in the moment believe that they. Even problems that are lasting for a long period of time like somebody being unwell and we know that that’s going to last for a while, eventually it becomes the new normal. You find a way to adjust to it and to adapt and to cope with it, so even though there might be that initial stress and tension and shock that happens in those scenarios it won’t matter to you in the same way that it does now. That’s not me saying it won’t matter to you at all – of course we will have our memories of incidents that have happened in the past and there might still be things that are ongoing that are still very, very important to us, or things that we’re still reacting to – but you can change the way that you feel about it so that you can still have a good time. You can still have a good life, you can still be happy! Asking yourself ‘will this depth of stress and despair and worry matter in X amount of time?’ is a good way to contextualise the issue and say ‘the problem might still be relevant to me later on but actually this particular intensity of emotion probably won’t be there later, so it’s not going to matter quite so much’.
My next piece of advice is to be bigger than it whatever the problem is. Very often when we are faced with a challenge that we don’t like our tendency is to want to curl up and be as small as possible and hide under the duvet; unfortunately life doesn’t often lend itself to allowing us to crawl up in bed and hide under the duvet. We have to face up to our challenges. If we’re going to face up to them let’s not face up to them by imagining that there is huge ogre standing and looming over us and that we’re this tiny mediocre thing doing our best to fight our way through life. Instead, let’s think of ourselves as being big and strong and powerful and smart and intelligent and resourceful and all of those good things that we need to be in order to be able to solve these various different challenges.
This might even come down to how you physically hold yourself: what is your posture doing? If your posture is all slumped and curled in on itself when you’re thinking about you know having a go and trying your best at overcoming those challenges it’s not going to help. If you think of yourself as being as tall as you can make yourself (even if you’re tiny like me) then it helps, maybe there’s a bit of a superhero pose that you can throw into the mix! There is some research out there which tells you about the internal reactions that you have when you stick yourself in a superhero pose – it actually helps you to release powerful and important positive chemicals inside of your body and you can change how you emotionally feel based on how you use your physical body. So let’s do a little bit more of that!
I also like to suggest talking through it or writing it out. Now, the one thing I would say about talking through it is sometimes you may be met with people who just want to fire ideas and solutions at you when actually you’re still in the ‘get your head around a problem stage’ and so you’re not really ready to absorb their ideas or solutions. That happens quite a lot so for me personally, I’ve found writing stuff down works really well because then I can see it it’s on a piece of paper and I know what I’m up against. Does that mean that sometimes the size of that list is overwhelming? Yes it does – but ultimately it’s a piece of paper and it means that I don’t have to invest so much time in thinking about it and reminding myself of these things because it’s on a piece of paper. I can break it down into smaller chunks, I can highlight the things that I can do today and I can take control over or delegate out parts to somebody else. Writing it down or at least just getting the thoughts out of your head will make a big difference to how much space – how much data – you are using up on that internal hard drive.
And my final tip is to do one thing at a time! If you want to do something well multitasking is not going to be the way forward – multitasking doesn’t work. If you want to do something well you should focus on it and put all of your time and energy into solving that one thing. The payoff from knowing that you did a really good job solving that one problem and giving it your undivided attention in the moment will be so good for you that you’ll feel empowered to go on and do all of the other things on your list. Just think about doing one thing at a time and try to minimise your distractions where you can because the more that you can really focus your time and attention on one thing the better you will get at doing the good job you’re working on.
By Gemma Bailey