Counseling Austin Blog

Where to turn when you can’t even see which way is up

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I’m not just talking about a Murphy’s Law day. I’m talking about when things feel so messed up in your life that even deciding where to start feels impossible and is just another to-do on your already insanely long to-do list. When the people you turn to just aren’t there, or you realize that you’ve already isolated yourself and there’s really nobody to turn to. It’s a terribly lonely place, but there is a way out.

I tell clients that are super stressed-out like this that it’s tough to know which way to turn when there are so many fires to put out that the smoke makes it impossible to know which direction is safe. In these conditions, even an internal compass seems useless since even if you know what to do, those to-do lists just add more layers of stress, and even if you know what basic direction to go in, you can’t tell if there’s a giant hole between you and where you’re going. What my clients learn, is that even in this situation, there is a way to find clarity, and despite an urge to run away as quickly as possible, the best move is to just take a seat for a moment. In other words, sometimes when you are at a crossroads in life, you don’t have to immediately choose . . . you can just take a seat on the park bench for a few minutes.

Do I have your attention now? Those descriptions typically elicit wide-eyed YES!! responses from people that are relieved somebody finally understands their predicament. And if it’s not spot on, then you get to get me zeroed in on the full reality.

Step 1: Breathe

If you haven’t already done so, please read the post on meditation . . . there are several other related posts (mindfulness, flow, balance) that are also helpful, but at least start with meditation, pay particular attention to how to breathe properly.

Ok, so stress is an alarm system in your body that alerts you to danger. It helps you turn up your energy level by triggering the Sympathetic Nervous System (ie Fight or Flight). This is great if you’re being chased by a zebra or something, but it’s only supposed to be left on for a few minutes, usually how long it takes to get away from that charging yak . . . or zebra (in our case the animal is taxes, laundry, dinner, reports, oil change, flat tire, and screaming kids that just broke the TV by throwing the vase your grandmother gave you at it). When it is left on for too long, it becomes extremely toxic, and we become “stressed-out” or “burned-out.” Our brain is racing, as is our heart and breathing. We are in super-sonic turbo mode and trying to do things that take finesse and a steady hand. And since life is going to go at the pace it goes at, we need to slow our bodies and minds down. We need to turn down the sympathetic nervous system.

The way we accomplish this is very specific and is susceptible to the “practice effect,” which means you get better at it the more you do it. What we need to do is turn on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (ie Rest and Digest). Thankfully, there is a light switch-like method to turn this on, smooth, rhythmic breathing. If you haven’t already done so, seriously, read the post on meditation. Skip to the part on how to breathe if you like.

Breathing correctly stimulates the Relaxation Response, which is an electrical feedback loop that tells the parasympathetic nervous system to turn on. Remember, you’ll get better with practice, so if you don’t feel suddenly chilled-out, do not give up!

Step 2: Just notice

This step is about mindfulness. If you’ve read my other posts on mindfulness, you’ll remember that mindfulness is a simple awareness of what is going on, but without the extraneous judgments of good, bad, etc. It’s just the facts: I have to do X, Y, and Z. Period. Then use that same mindfulness to just notice what you are feeling, again working to set aside the judgments of good or bad. For example, “I feel stressed, anxious, angry and confused.”

Once you have put a name on your situation and your feelings, you’ll often begin to feel things lifting just a bit, and at this point, ANY relief is welcomed! Being able to name your situation and your feelings helps the brain get grounded so it can work more efficiently. Things are beginning to move from total chaos to at least a little bit of structure.

Now check in with your breathing. If it has gone back to stress breathing, sit back down, and return to the smooth, rhythmic belly breathing.

Step 3: Pick a reasonable goal

Once there is a little bit of clarity you’ll be better able to pick something to start with. Keep it simple, though. If you have to clean your entire house for a party, then that’s going to feel overwhelming. If you start with just the coffee table, you’ll start building momentum that will help you do the end tables, then the dining room table, etc. Celebrate the accomplishments with a piece of chocolate (not Vodka or beer!). Remember, you can only straighten up one area at a time, so just focus on the area you are in.

Now consider the above example as a metaphor. The coffee table may be symbolic for getting your tax paperwork in one location. The dining room table may be symbolic for that broken TV (making sure the kids are ok).

Step 4: Ask for help

One thing that mindfulness helps you see is when it’s time to call in reinforcements. Ask your partner, friends, family etc. to help you out with some of those tasks. Going with the metaphor of cleaning up the house, motivate the kids to help clean their rooms with some extra video game time. Ask your friends and family to help you as well. It may be just to listen to you, help you strategize, or even to help do some of your to-do items.

Finally, remember that professionals are here for you, too. Get in touch with me and we’ll help you design a plan that you can rely on when the chaos feels unmanageable.

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