It’s the little things that count the most

If there’s one thing that watching celebrity “reality” shows teaches you, it’s that rich and famous people aren’t any happier than the rest of us. You’d think that having all that money and notoriety would make people wildly happy. But it doesn’t. And if you’re walking around thinking, “Well, if I won the lottery, I’d be gloriously happy for the rest of my life,” nope, you wouldn’t. Practically everybody who comes into sudden wealth gets happy momentarily and then returns to their former level of happiness (or unhappiness) as before. So what does bring lasting happiness?

dttsp869_600In a nifty little study, Daniel Mochon of MIT (now at Tulane University) and his colleagues asked if small, repeated actions might be the best way to improve your sense of well-being over the long term. The researchers looked at two sorts of behaviors that they imagined might increase people’s sense of well-being: spiritual expression (in the form of attending some sort of religious service) or engaging in physical activity (either at a gym or practicing yoga). In before/after comparisons, the participants reported an increase in their sense of well-being.

Happiest over all were Mormons and people of Baha’i faith.   The least happy were Catholics and Quakers. But “least happy” here was still pretty darn happy (an average of 70 on a 100 point scale when rating themselves on questions like “How happy are you with your life in general?”) The biggest before/after boost was experienced by the Greek Orthodox; people placed in the generic “Christians” category experienced no change in their sense of well-being (~82/100).

While their results aren’t that surprising (to me, anyway, since I both attend religious services and practice yoga), the researchers themselves were surprised. That’s because they subscribe to the “hedonic treadmill” idea, which posits that you have a “set point” of happiness that neither good nor bad events effects very much. Their conclusion: “…people who engage in these activities often enough will end up with higher well-being.” Put another way, regular, small boosts will increase your sense of happiness over the long term.

Here’s how to put these results to work for yourself:

  • Find an activity to try. It could be taking a walk, attending a religious service, or taking a yoga class. The choice is up to you, just make sure it’s something you can participate in regularly.
  • Keep track your sense of well-being before and after the activity. A scale of one to five works just fine. After you’ve attended several sessions (say three to five), evaluate. If you’re seeing some increases, then make a longer term commitment. If not, try something else.
  • If you want an even bigger boost, add in the “three good things” exercise. Personally, I keep a gratitude journal, which I find keeps me focused on positive emotional experiences on a daily basis (and probably provides the same kind of small boosts).

The Overwhelm Diaries: Part Two

What are you pretending not to know?

The toughest coaching question I know is: What are you pretending not to know? The question is so difficult because it requires the client to face up to her delusions, the wishes she has for reality that don’t line up with what’s actually going on. To face reality is often so painful—sometimes the client chooses to hold on to her make-believe world instead. And by “client,” I also mean me.

I was faced uncovering my own pretending-not-to-know last week when I brought one of my struggles to conversation with a beloved friend. I explained that I was really confused by my own confusion. “When I’m out walking my dog, I can see what to do and how to do it, but when I get back to my desk, all that vanishes. I just sit there, feeling confused and distracted. This is not like me!” What I really meant was: What the hell is wrong with me?

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My wise friend said, “What would you tell a coaching client who came to you and said what you just said?”

Oh, drat. I felt like I’d just been served a big heaping plate of my own dog food. Sighing, I looked around for a fork. “I would ask them about rest and play and stillness. I would suggest that maybe there’s some overwhelm or overload happening,” I replied. “I’d ask them: What are you pretending not to know?”

In my own recent season of overwhelm, insomnia has been my most persistent companion. Every night that I lose a lot of sleep extracts a terrible cost on my body, my spirit, my mind. What I’ve been pretending not to know is that I’m not just anxious, I am also overloaded—and that I have very real symptoms of burnout.

Like many people who have to come face to face with what’s really going on, I can’t just teleport to a beach in Hawaii for some lanai time. But there are some steps I (and you) can take when I find myself in a season of deep overwhelm and anxiety. In Part One of The Overwhelm Diaries, you learned about some of the warning signs of anxiety—and in the comments, you can find others contributed by readers (God bless them!).

Some Tools to Consider During a Season of Anxiety and Overwhelm

Before my recent season of anxiety and overwhelm set in, I created a self-care plan:

  • Turn toward the light: Light isn’t just a metaphor for well-being. Light is an essential and powerful weapon against anxiety and overwhelm. A few weeks ago, my spiritual director suggested that when I feel very assaulted by adversity, find the light source and turn toward it. Every morning, I sit with my “happy light” for about 30 minutes while I pray and plan my day. At night, when insomnia taps me on the shoulder, I turn toward the window where a little light is seeping through.
  • Exercise: Studies show that as little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can stave off symptoms of burnout. I get up and move every day, preferably outdoors, since other research shows that being in nature also improves outlook and increases feelings of well being.
  • Centering Prayer: For twenty minutes a day, I sit still and focus on allowing the Holy Spirit into my heart, my body, and my mind.
  • Examen Prayer: Every evening, I review my day in conversation with God.
  • Art: I make some art. This is what play looks like for me: colorful, spontaneous, expressive, and fun.
  • Ask for help: I went to several of my closest friends and asked them to be my listeners. When I’m really distraught, I give them four questions to ask me:
    • What happened?
    • How did you feel?
    • How are you doing now?
    • What do you need from me?

My Emergency Survival Tactic

In moments of intense anxiety, frustration, or overreaction, however, I need something more. I’ve learned to spot the signs I’m about to go over the edge—I grip handfuls of hair, my teeth clench, I snap at Douglas, or I yell at the dog. To pull myself back from the abyss, I use a self-soothing exercise that I call Eight Breaths. I take eight deep breaths and on each breath, I focus on a different sensation.

Breath 1: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of air entering my nostrils.

Breath 2: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.

Breath 3: On the inhale, I focus on the expansion of my rib cage.

Breath 4: After the inhale, I focus on the pause before the exhale, when my lungs are full.

Breath 5: On the exhale, I focus on the contraction of my rib cage.

Breath 6: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.

Breath 7: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath exiting my nostrils.

Breath 8: After the exhale, I focus on the pause before the inhale, when my lungs are empty.

Doing this small meditation takes about a minute (I’ve recorded an Eight Breaths guided meditation for my newsletter subscribers—it’ll be attached to the issue that comes out on November 29). When I self-soothe using the Eight Breaths, I immediately feel calmer and more in possession of my own mind. Often, the Eight Breaths is enough to ground me. But if not, I turn toward the light, pray, and look for one of my people to give me perspective (and hugs).


  • Take a few minutes to create your own self-care plan. Plans are best created when you’re not in a season of deep anxiety and/or overwhelm—I created mine when I saw the first warning signs back in September.
  • Practice the Eight Breaths (and if you want to receive the guided meditation recording, subscribe to my newsletter).
  • Identify your trusted helpers and get them on board. Sharing your difficulties with a trusted other is incredibly important. If you don’t have a friend that you feel comfortable with asking, look for a spiritual director, a counselor, or a pastor with whom you can speak. I’ve found it essential to tell people that I don’t need or want fixing. More than anything I need to be heard and understood—period.
  • In the comments, share your strategies for coping. You can be certain that your story will help someone else.

Coming Up

In Part III of The Overwhelm Diaries, I’ll talk about steps you can take to develop your resilience to seasons of overwhelm and anxiety. Stay tuned! And don’t forget, you can hop on my Facebook page to ask questions and find more resources on this topic.

With love and gratitude,

With love from Tara

The Overwhelm Diaries: Part One


The Christmas decorations are up. Have you noticed? Well, maybe not at my house (or probably not yours either). But at the Big Box Stores? Yep, at midnight on October 31st, the Halloween stuff disappeared and Santa arrived. The irony of this exchange of one kind of scary tradition for another isn’t lost on me. Yes, dear reader, the countdown to the holidays has begun and the season of impending overwhelm is upon us.

Oddly, I have a bit of a specialty in overwhelm—both in experiencing it and helping clients develop some resilience to it. For the rest of November, I’m going to divulge some of my secrets in this series of posts entitled The Overwhelm Diaries, sharing with you what I’ve learned about overwhelm, and its mommy dearest: anxiety.

In The Overwhelm Diaries, you’ll learn:

  • How to identify overwhelm and anxiety – In other words: What are the red flag moments that signal impending overwhelm and anxiety?
  • What tools to use to ground yourself in the immediate moment – One of the most important survival mechanisms you can develop is the ability to get fully present.
  • Steps you can take to underwhelm your life – I’ve discovered some powerful tactics for toning down my sensitivity to overwhelm and anxiety; I want to share those with you.

OK, so let’s dive in with Part One!

What are the red flag moments that signal impending overwhelm and anxiety?

If you’ve attended one of my workshops on the topic of coping with overwhelm and overload, you already know that I make a distinction between these two. Overwhelm is not another term for overload. Overwhelm is characterized by frantic rushing, moving faster and faster in an attempt to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of unrelenting demands on your schedule and your energy.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is good old fashioned fear. Fear is a felt emotion, not just an intellectual experience. When I feel anxiety, it shows up in me as:

  • Dread: I have a sense of impending doom. Often, I feel especially strong dread in the evenings, just before bedtime.
  • Insomnia: My difficulties with sleep hit in the middle of the night when I awaken at one or two in the morning and can’t return to sleep. Instead, my thinking turns into an unrelenting litany of worry.
  • Obsessive planning: One of my all-time favorites! Deep down, I believe that if I can come up with a sufficiently detailed and ironclad plan, my anxiety will diminish. When I start craving a new plan, that’s not a good sign for my emotional health.
  • Excessive frustration: I feel deeply impatient. Little irritations suddenly seem immense. Small inconveniences are almost impossible to tolerate.
  • Reactivity: As the dread and insomnia take their toll on my coping skills, my darker responses to frustration get closer to the surface. The worst of these is anger. I get very angry, first with whomever is irritating me at the moment and shortly thereafter, with myself.

Anxiety’s symptoms eventually erode my coping behaviors to the point that whatever skills and tools of productivity (i.e., software, methods, approaches) I’ve been using to hold my life together are no longer helpful. That’s when overwhelm sets in. I go from managing the pace of my life to becoming a victim of life’s demands. I start to rush and to hurry. With my inability to keep up, I feel powerless and I feel shame.

Of course, these twin demons of anxiety and overwhelm can descend at any time of life or any season of the year. Personally, I’m coming out of a season of anxiety + overwhelm that was brought on by fall (the shortening fall days are always troublesome for me) coupled with the pressures of completing the final details of my book. However, the last two months of the year are often times of heightened anxiety and overwhelm for many people especially with the pressures of traditional holidays, the demands of year-end work duties, and dark and cold winter days.

I suggest you take a few minutes to identify your own warning signs. What are some of your own signs and symptoms of anxiety or overwhelm? Anxiety, especially, can hide in plain sight. If you don’t mind sharing in the comments, you’ll be sure to help someone else see themselves and gain some insight into their responses to the pressures of life.


In Part Two of The Overwhelm Diaires, we’ll explore some tools I use to ground myself in the immediate moment. These are some of the most important survival mechanisms I’ve discovered that help me to gain some sanity when I get hit by an especially strong blast of anxiety or an intense wave of overwhelm.

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