Overcoming Overwhelm: What I do to Conquer Stress and Anxiety

(A letter to self.)

Hey there,

I noticed you’re having a rough day.

Stressed out about a limitless number of potential to-do’s?
Anxious about the uncertainty of the future?
Feeling fear and self-doubt?

That’s okay. I know it’s not pleasant in the moment, but there’s nothing wrong with you, or your situation. Experiencing these feelings just means you’re human. 🙂

The mind is like an ocean. You can’t control when the waves will get rough. But you can learn to sail, and navigate to calmer waters.

When life gets overwhelming, you control your reaction to the feelings that arise. How you respond to life’s challenges determines everything: your happiness, fulfillment, success…

This isn’t the first time you’ve felt stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed this year. And it certainly won’t be the last.

But with the right approach, you can choose get back on your feet. To return to your best self, operating from a place of energy, creativity, and confidence.

When you feel overwhelmed, just remember the 4 P’s:

  1. Pause: Deliberately slow down to re-connect with yourself.
  2. Phase-shift: Intentionally change your physical state to shift your mind-state.
  3. Prime: Shift your attention away from yourself to cultivate openness.
  4. Proceed: Move forward with a renewed focus on the essentials.

(Before diving in, I wanted to let you know about my Mindful Morning Jumpstart Checklist. It’s a morning routine I follow to start every day on the right foot. It won’t make you superman, but it helps me put my best self forward more often than not. The checklist includes my specific routine, the rationale behind it, and some ways you can customize it to fit your priorities and needs.)

Step 1: Pause

Overwhelm throws you into a negative feedback loop.

The mind becomes active with stress and anxiety. And you get more stressed thinking about how overwhelmed you are.

Collect yourself by hitting pause in the following manner:

  1. Sit in a short meditation. Take a few minutes to return to the present moment. Let the “dust” of your mind settle to regain a sense of clarity.
  2. Observe the emotions you’re feeling with curiosity. Approach them with a sense of non-ownership. These aren’t “your” emotions. They’re merely emotions you’re experiencing.
  3. Write ‘em down. Write “What I’m feeling right now” at the top of the page. List out the emotions you’re feeling. If you have clarity on the matter, include why you’re experiencing it. Writing things down creates space between you and your experience so you can see it objectively. 
  4. Acknowledge that the feelings you’re feeling are temporary. Thoughts, emotions, and feelings are impermanent, like clouds passing across the blue sky. The blue sky is still there, it’s just obstructed by the clouds. Noting what emotions you’re feeling with genuine curiosity helps them pass by more freely.
  5. Plan your next steps. Write “What I’m going to do about it” on the page. As you wrote about these challenges, some ideas probably came to mind. Capture these initial thoughts about what you could do given the challenges you’re facing. Consider these potential options, not the path you must take.

Step 2: Phase-Shift

I know you’re tempted to keep working through this overwhelm. After all, there’s so much to do!

Resist that temptation. Although hustle is valuable, productivity is about mind management. When you’re overwhelmed, the mind is closed, frantic, and reactive. It’s not the state where you’ll do your best work.

Instead of grinding out more work, take time to mentally phase-shift. This means taking steps away from the restricted, grasping state of mind, and moving towards an open, creative, and confident mind.

Physical activity is a reliable way to create this phase-shift. Nothing wipes the mental slate clean like a hard workout. Take time now to take a break from your work, and get some exercise.

If you don’t have the ability to do a full workout, that’s okay. You can move your body in a smaller way:

  • Go for a walk around the block
  • Do some jumping jacks
  • Do a few sets of pushups
  • Flow through some yoga poses

Step 3: Prime

“Suffering happens when you’re obsessing about yourself.”
~Tony Robbins

After pausing and shifting phases, you should be thinking a bit more clearly. Now is the time to re-connect with the reasons why you do what you do.

  • Think of the specific people whose lives you impact every day. Maybe it’s your readers, coworkers, clients, customers, family, or friends…
  • Think of the vision you’re pursuing. Your best life. A lifestyle that aligns with your priorities and values.

You have an impact on the world around you. Every day is an opportunity for you to delight others. To bring people up through your work and interactions.

Step 4: Proceed

The path forward. It’s filled with uncertainty, challenges, and inevitable mistakes.

That might feel daunting, but it’s reality! Accept that the future is full of unknowns. Focus instead on what you can control. Remind yourself of these principles, and you’ll be fine.

1. All That Matters is What you do Next

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
~Mother Teresa

Let go of past actions. What you did/didn’t do yesterday is a Sunk Cost anyway.

All that matters is what you do now, moving forward. There’s never been a better time to get started!

2. Progress Takes Patience

“Small, Smart Choices + Consistency + Time = RADICAL DIFFERENCE.”
~Darren Hardy

Every successful business, project, or endeavor in the world once started from nothing. And it grew day by day, one step at a time.

You can’t do everything at once. Have faith in the power of marginal gains.

Set your goals based on what you can control: your behavior.

  • What are the specific things you’re going to do?
  • When will you do them?

Plan your work. Work your plan. Lather, rinse, repeat.

3. Effectiveness Matters More Than Busyness

“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
~Tim Ferriss

Spend your time wisely by working on high-impact activities.

  1. Brainstorm possibilities of things you could work on. (You already got a head-start on this in step 1.)
  2. Identify the most important tasks.
  3. Prioritize them by urgency.
  4. Get to work!

4. Keep Moving

“You may delay, but time will not.”
~Benjamin Franklin

Distraction and procrastination are the enemy of progress. While working, stay present and focused.

[Related article: How to Get Focused and Stay Focused at Work.]

5. Smile and Enjoy the Ride

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Every day is a new day, filled with opportunity.

Remember to have some fun while you’re at it! After all, if you don’t enjoy the journey, the destination doesn’t matter.

I’m so Excited for you

You have so much awesomeness to share with the world. Countless opportunities to make things better.

And you just coached yourself through some difficult stuff!

Keep up the hard work. I can’t wait to see where you go.

Onward!

-Patrick

PS: Save this note for later. You never know when it’ll come in handy.

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