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What to do when you are overwhelmed - Part 2

Last week, we dealt with the first steps that you can take when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. I mentioned that the best plan is to...

#1. Do not make any important decisions while you are in a panicked state.

#2. Breathe until you calm the “fight or flight” response.

Today, we’ll continue this investigation into reducing stress, anxiety, and the sense of overwhelm and helplessness.

After you have finished breathing for 5-10 minutes, begin journaling or writing down all of your thoughts. If you need to, set a timer for 10 minutes.

Write in an unfiltered way. Go crazy! At this point, it doesn’t matter if these thoughts make sense or not. You are just trying to get them out of our head and onto the paper.

Another way of describing this type of technique is the phrase: externalizing your thoughts or externalization.

After you have spent some time writing about what is stressing you, it is time to start analyzing your situation.

Try to break down the problems into categories.

For example, I had a client who came into my office in a panic a few weeks ago. In her case, she did not write down anything, but she externalized her thoughts by speaking to me as I took notes.

After taking some notes, we were able to break down her concerns into a few categories:

  • Health:  She was not sleeping well, and a doctor told her that she had sleep apnea.
  • She was waiting on test results for another health issue.
  • She had a test to study for in a college class.
  • She needed a new job.

No wonder she was stressed! When we do not externalize our thoughts, they have a tendency to swirl in our head. No plan can form, because one stressful issue replaces another. Also, as stress mounts, we enter our fight or flight response, and it becomes harder to think strategically and logistically.

Therefore, another way to calm down is to externalize our thoughts and then analyze them. To get technical, analysis, planning, and strategizing moves us from the amygdala, the part of our brain activated from a perceived threat or stressor, to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving.

Moving to the prefrontal cortex also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body, slowing the heart rate and breathing, and promoting relaxation.  

Back to the journaling. As we break down and analyze the problem, we should begin to feel more calm. Break down each item and see if you can figure out what is stressing you about it. In my client’s case, the stressors were as follows.

  • She did not exactly understand what sleep apnea meant. When her doctor told her that it means that you stop breathing in your sleep, she believed she was in danger of death.
  • She was waiting on test results for another health issue. She was stressed about the possible test results, and also she did not know where or how she would receive these results.
  • She had a test to study for in a college class. She was not sure what material would be on the test.
  • She needed a new job. She thought that she was in danger of losing her current job, because she had just gotten a new boss.

After identifying the underlying reasons for the problems or stressors, we were then able to build a plan for each item.

Building a plan will further move you into the prefrontal cortex, and it will also give you a sense of control over your situation, which should also calm you.

The key here is to identify exactly what you need to do next in every area. We call this discovering the True Next Step, and it is one of the pillars of The Rio System, our method for adults with ADHD to move from chaos to control.

After my client identified her True Next Steps, her plan was as follows:

  • Do a quick web search about the dangers of sleep apnea. (She discovered that she was not in immediate danger.)
  • Speak to her doctor about the next step she would need to take to address her sleeping problem.
    • We even wrote the doctor’s name and number down to further facilitate her contacting the physician. 
  • Also, in this call to the doctor, find out about the results of the test, and/or find out when, where, and how she could get these results.
  • Contact her teacher to better understand the specific material that would be covered on the test.
  • Schedule a meeting with her new boss to touch base and get a better idea of any new roles or expectations at the workplace.

This client left my office in a much calmer state. She had moved from her amygdala to her prefrontal cortex and, more importantly, taken control of her situation.

Even though none of the problems were resolved, just knowing what to do next had a great calming effect. 

Now, just to recap, if you are feeling overwhelmed or in a state of panic:

1. Do not make any rash decisions.

2. Breathe.

3.  Free write to externalize your thoughts.

4.  Analyze your thoughts / current problems.

5.  Make a plan by identifying the True Next Step.

Let us know if you have any of your own hacks to counteract the state of anxiety, panic, or overwhelm.

Thanks for reading!

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