The Overwhelm Diaries: Part Three

This is the third in a three part series. Part One covered the symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety. In Part Two, I shared some of my survival tactics for weathering a season of overwhelm. For the final installment of the series, I give some suggestions for how to develop greater overwhelm resilience by “underwhelming” your life.


After I published Part One of The Overwhelm Diaries, I got an email from a beloved, far-away friend, James. He shared how when he feels overwhelmed, it’s as if something outside himself takes over and wrests the helm of his life away. Helm, as it turns out, is from the German for handle. He wrote, “As in: I just can’t get a handle on my life!” I understand exactly what James means. There are times when I feel as if I’m sailing along, very much the captain of my own ship. And then, before I know it, a storm blows up and the waves are crashing over me and I’m not steering anymore. I’ve lost the helm.

When I first started teaching about overwhelm, and its first cousin, overload, I pitched my workshops along the lines of defeating these two. I no longer think of it that way. Now, I think in terms of resilience. Adversity will come into our lives; this is a given fact. We can’t avoid the storms, the crises, the difficulties, the struggles that life sometimes deals out. What we can do, however, is prepare for them. Think of this as a form of disaster preparedness. You’re going to get swamped. You’re going to have seasons of storms. But you don’t have to drown.

How Do You Underwhelm Your Life?

When something is underwhelming, we usually mean it’s disappointing or not quite up to expectations. The underwhelmed life I’m talking about isn’t like that at all. An underwhelmed life is one that is stable, has some predictability, and is well grounded. Here’s how I’ve underwhelmed my life so that I’m better prepared to weather the seasons of overwhelm, when they blow in.

  • Slow down. A couple of years ago, I realized that I value feeling unhurried. To put it another way, I really detest feeling rushed or frantic. One of the ways I honor the value of being unhurried was by changing how I allocate my time. I take great care to keep my schedule balanced and spacious, to hold space for daily self-care (like lunch away from my desk), and to take regular breaks. One side effect of slowing down I didn’t anticipate was that big projects sometimes take longer to complete—however, the benefit of feeling less stressed is worth the it to me.
  • Create containers. Often, people tell me that I’m very busy. However, what these folks don’t know is that I’m actually not nearly as busy as I seem to be. What looks like busy from the outside is actually my well-honed ability to put activities into containers and not let them spill out. I decide how much space in my schedule to allocate for particular activities and I don’t let those escape from the nice boxes I’ve put them in. Of course, there are times when everything goes haywire but I mostly manage to wall work into certain days and times and not let it roam freely over the landscape of my life.
  • Cultivate relationships. Social support is essential when I’m in a season on anxiety and overwhelm. I tend to isolate myself when I’m stressed and that is not healthy for me. Because I need the support of family and friends when I’m in distress, I cultivate and nurture relationships when I’m calm and happy. I do art dates with my girl friends. I take days off with my hubby. I have coffee with my mom. I’m present for my people so I can be a loving source of encouragement when they need me. I don’t want to be the kind of person who only shows up when I need something. I make lots of deposits in the emotional bank accounts of friends and family—those are good investments for all of us, not just me.
  • Get good at being still. Being still will anchor your life. A stillness practice will ground, stabilize, and center your soul. Part of the reason stillness underwhelms my life is that I’ve been able to learn who I am. I am not my circumstances. I am not my emotions. I am a beloved daughter of God—a spiritual being having a human experience.

 Action Steps

  • Look at your calendar. Ask: How can I make more space? Give yourself permission to open space and not fill it with anything.
  • Practice stillness. This might be as simple as going to a local coffee shop, alone, without your laptop. Take a book and read. People watch. If necessary, leave your phone in the car!
  • Look for your values. What do you value most? Invest in that.
  • In the comments, share your strategies for underwhelming your life. You can be certain that your story will help someone else.

Coming Up

For the month of December, I’ll be focusing on creating intentions for 2016. There will be posts on year-end review and reflection, suggestions on how to choose intentions instead of resolutions, and a mini-workshop on how to create a beautiful and lasting intentions book as a tangible reminder of what you’ve chosen for the focus of your attention. For newsletter subscribers, there’ll be a special gift!

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

This post is the second in a series. You can read Part One here.

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?

Image from

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

Tara Rodden Robinson © 2013 :: Policies :: Contact