This article first appeared on Happify.com.
It’s no secret that the pace of change today has exceeded our wildest imaginations. Millenia have collapsed into decades, and centuries have merged into days. And yet, little has changed in our neurobiology—we’re still operating in the 21st century with the brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That we’re overwhelmed should come as no surprise!
At a neural level, overwhelm happens when the information coming at us exceeds our capacity to process it. This initiates the classic “fight, flight or freeze” response, our trusted tool to face all challenges. However, given that information overload, fast-approaching deadlines and having too much on our plates are not life-or-death situations, let’s expand our toolbox and include more helpful strategies to deal with those feelings of overwhelm.
Here are five that can help you instantly feel calmer and more centered.
Take Back Control
When the present moment seems out of control, we try and escape it by living in the future. That’s when we begin to imagine a different job, a dreamy holiday, a utopian life. None of it changes reality though, and often makes it even more difficult to deal with it. A much better strategy would be to create pools of positivity in the present moment. What can you do right now to take back control of your life? Something as simple as getting a haircut, calling up a friend for lunch, or buying a lavender-scented candle on the way home for a relaxing bath can give you that much-needed sense of control.
Mind Your Language
When we’re overwhelmed, we begin to engage in unhelpful thinking styles that distort reality. We begin to talk to ourselves in “musts” and “shoulds”, thus adding to the overwhelm. Instead, it would help to change our self-talk to gentler words such as “want” and “choose” that make us feel in charge and help us maintain perspective. Think about it: what would motivate you to complete a project at work? “I must finish it before the end of day.” or I want to hand it in today so that I can spend quality time with my family over the weekend”? Given that our thoughts, emotions and behaviors work in feedback loops, watching our language is key to managing our mental and emotional state.
Don’t Work Harder
Individualistic cultures certainly help us take responsibility for our lives. But when we believe that we can be whoever we want to be and do whatever we want to do, we react to stress and exhaustion by attempting to work harder rather than slowing down, which is what our body is really asking for. As performance psychologist Jim Loehr says, our minds and bodies work best in sprints rather than marathons. Sometimes it isn’t more willpower and hard work we need, but different strategies such as taking a break, connecting with others, or connecting inwards through mindfulness practices that help us view our challenges with a much wider lens.
Take a Real Break
When we think of breaks, we think of beaches and mountains, and of faraway places where our worries no longer torment us. However, these getaways, beneficial as they are, aren’t instantly accessible. What is always accessible, though, is our own mind. Taking a break from the catastrophic thoughts and the depressing judgments that characterize an overwhelmed mind is one of the quickest ways of giving ourselves a break from rumination, and harnessing our mental capacities towards moving ahead rather than closing down.
Recognize Your Suffering
Remember when you were little and needed your parents to calm you when you were upset or overwhelmed? As an adult, you’d no longer turn to Mom, but you still need her comforting words. So it’s up to you to remind yourself that you’re doing your best, to recognize your suffering and to believe in your ability to handle it. You may even want to place your hand on your heart as you do so, for an added oxytocin surge. Self-compassion is an excellent way to self-soothe—one that helps us find the inner strength to do the right thing.
Information overload, increasing competition and expectations of instant turnaround are all part of our 21st-century reality. Instead to trying to flee them, fight harder, or simply freeze under pressure—all of which once helped us survive—we need to build healthy strategies that help us redirect our mental energy, rise to the challenge, and thrive.