This post was written by Leo Babauta, originally for Zen Habits. Republished here with permission.
I have an overwhelming amount on my mind today, and with that feeling of being overwhelmed, my stress levels have gone up significantly. This is a wonderful opportunity to practice being present. Here’s a method for dealing with feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
A Method for Dealing with Feeling Stressed and Overwhelmed
We all experience stress, we all get overwhelmed, and we can drown in it and let it rule our lives … or we can practice with it. Learn from it.
So here’s what I’m doing today to deal with my stress:
1. Recognize the signs. When my stress levels go up, two things happen: I have stress hormones flooding my body, and I tend to rush around and jump from one task to another really quickly. These are great signals that something is going on! So the first step of this method is to realize that I’m overwhelmed, and that I need to pause.
2. Pause and notice. I stop moving, and notice what’s going on. Just sit still and look inward. Feel the stress in my body. It feels like waves of electricity flowing from my head and chest toward my extremities. Just notice this physical feeling, notice how rushed I feel, notice how I am feeling like the world is crashing down on me.
3. Notice the urge to be in control. The feeling of being overwhelmed is so strong because I don’t feel in control. When I can do one thing at a time and have a manageable amount on my plate, I feel in control. This is simply an illusion. I’m never really in control. I make lists, I create systems, I develop routines, I have goals and mark my progress, I have accountability … but I’m just floundering in the dark like everyone else. I don’t know where I’m going, nor am I executing an exact plan to get anywhere. I’m just trying to make my way in an uncertain, uncontrollable world, without falling on my face too much. So now I notice this urge to be in control of my life, and don’t act on it. Just see it, acknowledge it.
4. Give yourself love. As I see this urge to be in control, see the stress flowing through me … I can send love to myself. It’s like putting a warm hand over my heart. Then putting a warm hand over the other parts of me that are stressed, that want control. It relaxes me a bit, makes me feel less anxious. It’s like a mother’s love calming an upset child.
5. Narrow my scope. This is my concession to my desire to be in control. I can’t do everything at once. Nor can I do in a single day all of the thousand and one things I need to do. I can only do a handful of things today. So I make a list, then pick a few things I can do today. The Today list ends up being too long, so I have to renegotiate my commitments and acknowledge that I only have a limited capacity. I narrow down my Today list. This is now doable. The rest I’ll have to do once I’m done with this smaller list.
6. Focus on one thing. All I can do is one thing. I want to do a hundred right now. But I can only do one. So I pick one, clear everything else away, and just focus completely on that one thing. Yes, there’s still stress in my body, and I can be aware of that stress and the urge to be in control that remains, continue to give myself love, as I do my one thing. This is the best I can do. So I do my best at it.
7. Relax into the moment. As I do my one thing right now, I can feel the tension in myself. My chest is tight, my neck is tense, my arms and legs are tensed up. So I tell myself to relax into this present moment. I just let myself relax and accept what’s going on, relax and be here with this moment instead of fighting against it, relax and see that there’s beauty and joy to appreciate in this moment, even in the midst of chaos and stress. There’s so much in this one moment that I don’t need to focus on everything else — I’ll get to those things later — but instead can relax into the warm embrace of the goodness of this moment.
I am practicing this method as I write these words, and hope to practice it all day today. I offer it to you in hopes that you’ll find some beauty, joy, and appreciation with it as well.