Unable to relax? Overthinking every decision? Worried about saying the wrong thing, you keep quiet? Not sleeping well? Jumpy when your phone rings? Always questioning your choices?
Do any of these sound familiar?
I recently worked with a client who literally froze mentally whenever he was under pressure. He said he felt as if his brain had been switched off.
He’d find himself lost in his head, and once turned up for a meeting with his line manager with just his pen. He completely forgot to carry out the task for the meeting and did not have any report to present. His brain felt overloaded, just like a busy large capital city like Kuala Lumpur, with the deafening noise of cars and taxis hooting: the lights flicker, and then go out.
When we’re overwhelmed or anxious, we can’t function.
Another client of mine used to create a daily to-do-list and let her brain get hijacked by this list, because she never got past the first five items and then spent the night and the next day upset with herself.
The brain doesn’t just see a to-do list; it sees a threat. It sees the threat of failure: not enough time to fit everything into twenty-four hours, too much work, not enough energy. Or it sees the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling incapable.
Anxiety is on the rise, affecting millions of people and sadly, recent research found the most afflicted are 18-26 years old.
Our bodies react to threat the same way: fight, flight, or freeze, whether the threat is a lot of pressure at work, a to-do list that makes us feel like we can’t breathe or a pedestrian suddenly runs out in front of our car. Usually, we land somewhere between freeze, and flight, which could manifest as procrastination.
So what do you do if you’re overwhelmed, paralysed, or procrastinating?
Recognise your anxious feeling and give it an objective appraisal. There is a physiological aspect of anxiety and it’s sometimes easier to notice the physical signals, such as an uncomfortable tummy or persistent pain in the neck.
Research tells us that: when our stress response system is activated, many other processes in the body and mind shut down. Mentally, our higher order thinking – which is our ability to empathise and analyse – shuts down, too.
Try recognising the signals for your stress cycle, keep track on a calendar to mark the frequency.
When do these cycles tend to happen? At the end of the day while you are watching TV? On Friday nights when you are driving home? Or is it on your way to work on Monday morning? Who is a repeated character in your stress episodes?
It’s called 5-4-3-2-1. You work your way through your five senses.
- Acknowledge 5 THINGS around you that you can SEE.
- It could be a clock on the wall, chair, clouds moving past, or a nearby tree.
- Acknowledge 4 THINGS around you that you can TOUCH.
- Maybe it is your phone, the chair you are sitting on, your hair, or your wallet or handbag.
- Acknowledge 3 THINGS around you that you can HEAR.
- This could be the sound of people talking, the hum of fans or clocks ticking.
- Acknowledge 2 THINGS around you that you can SMELL.
- Breathe in the coffee aroma or a new book or check to see how your deodorant is working today.
- Acknowledge 1 THING that you can TASTE.
- It might be a sip of cold water, or even just the taste of your last meal.
At the end of the exercise, celebrate your success!
This does two things to interrupt the anxiety and overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, the present moment. Secondly, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts. It’s a mini moment of mindfulness to pull you out of the spiral.
Tip #3: Ruthlessly Prioritise.
That means deciding not to do things you'd really like to do. It also means deciding what's the most important task even when everything on your list feels crucial.
When you feel overwhelmed, stick to things that need to be done. Ignore out those things that “should” be done.
Questions to guide you when setting priorities:
What needs to be done immediately?
What are the consequences if the task is not done?
When should you start working on the task?
What resources and inputs do I need to complete this task?
What has not been done that should have been done?
Tip #4: Stop Multitasking
Don’t multitask. Work on one task at a time. Multitasking is a myth, and trying to do it only splits your focus.
Our brains aren’t equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower. Instead, we end up toggling back and forth among our various tasks, repeatedly switching back and forth from project to project, like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower and then back to the original flower, can impair our ability to function at our finest.
"Our brain does not perform tasks simultaneously. It performs them in sequence, one after another," Dr. Gratias
So, when we are multitasking we are switching back and forth between the things we are doing.
Whenever you transition from one task to another it takes a moment for your brain to become fully engaged in the activity.
Trying to work from home and keep an eye on the kids or cooking, holding a phone conversation while the TV is on, watching your email notifications while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 all force you to transition your attention back and forth hundreds of times.
Many surgeons say that their most loved environment in the hospital is the operating room, despite the stress and risk inherent with the job. It is a place of isolation, a safe home from the multitasking world.
Before you react, pause to observe your thoughts and shape them.
When you align your thoughts and actions with what truly matters to you, you feel at peace.
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