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20 Feb 2018

Overcoming Overwhelm

We have all been there. It may happen to you periodically during busy times of the year like the holidays or family events, or it may hit you during the course of any given day. It is the feeling you get when you find yourself scrolling through that endless list of things to do, family and work stresses, decisions to be made, etc. You become so overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, it feels as though you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, everything is a pressing priority, you don’t know where to start and you actually start to shut down.

Medical evidence has proven that exercise, sleep and proper nutrition help us to better cope with daily stresses and in fact, make us more productive overall. But what do you do when you are so overwhelmed that all those healthful things that you know you should do, that will help you deal with being overwhelmed, are thrown onto your pile and make you even more overwhelmed? It is a question I am asked often. How I manage? Well, it is not easy. And certainly some times are better than others. But I try to focus on the things that give me joy and that will give me the strength to deal with the things that do not.

I make my health a priority and my passion.

Several years ago, when I was working for a consulting firm, I was managing several big projects as well as travelling 4-5 days a week, renovating my house, dealing with family health issues and training to pursue a goal to run a Boston-qualifying time marathon. As a self-professed ‘workaholic’, work consumed almost every thought, despite my efforts to prioritize my personal life. Dave and I would plan to go out for a training run. I intended to use the time to clear my head, get some interesting ideas and engage in quality time for both Dave and my training. Each time, I would do all the preparation and planning that I knew would set me up to have a great run. However, with each run I found myself wrestling to calm my brain, my thoughts racing through an endless to-do list of activities, conversations and decisions. The more I tried to ‘stay in the moment’, the more my brain raced, the more overwhelmed and disappointed in myself I became until my body just shut down. I would end up sitting on the curb, in tears, unable to get through even the easiest training run. I have done dozens of marathons and triathlons and suddenly I couldn’t complete a 20 minute run. What’s wrong with me? As a healthy, successful woman in my personal and professional life, why couldn’t I work through this?

Then at my annual physical, I discussed my frustration with my doctor. I have an amazing doctor. She is knowledgeable, open-minded, compassionate and as a fellow athlete (she is an incredible, accomplished distance runner), ambitious in her career and mother of 4 young children, she really understands. She said something to me so profound that to this day her words are the voice in my head that I tap into whenever I feel overwhelmed and need to get myself moving forward.

Let’s be honest. Even when we check off things on our list, that list never really gets shorter. Think about it, we simply replace it with more things. Dr. Taylor said to me, “Do what you love. You love to run, so get your shoes on, get yourself out the door and run. But don’t worry about the plan, the route, the time, the distance. No pressure…just run because you love it. Once you start, if you still really feel like it’s not your day, give yourself permission to stop…no self-flagellation, it’s guilt free.”

I found that so statement powerful. We talked about how, in most cases, the hardest part is actually getting out the door. Yet once you get going, you immediately feel better. But what if you don’t feel better? It’s not the end of the world. No need to beat yourself up about it…tomorrow is another day. This is a way to take off pressure on something you are doing for fun. That doesn’t mean you can’t train hard, but if it isn’t your day, don’t let that moment ruin your entire day.

One additional gold nugget of advice she shared. She said, “if you find it isn’t your day, that’s ok but increase the intensity even for that short period so you at the very least you break a sweat. Whether it’s a few minutes or a few kilometers, break a sweat. Your shower will feel amazing after.”

So, I called my long time running buddy Marjory, who was also going through some similar struggles and we agreed to meet at 5am daily for our run, promising to follow Dr. Taylor’s advice. It certainly wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t a magic bullet fix, but taking the pressure and guilt away was probably the biggest help. Yes, there were days where the morning run was only 10 minutes and sometimes just 1 kilometer because it just wasn’t my day. But I gave myself permission that it was ok and to start again the next day. And most importantly, I was kind to myself and made it a priority to do something I loved to do, not letting the other things in my life take that away from me. I have a saying…” if you give them that, they will take that too”.
Slowly, consistency led to muscle memory kicking in and within weeks I was back to my usual distances. I was able to get back to my training routine and am confident this also improved my productivity and mood both at work and home. I was not longer resentful that one activity was taking away from another. I used the energy from the activity I loved to fuel my day.

I found through the years that I tap into these words in other parts of my life when I am feeling overwhelmed. There are those cold, snowy mornings where heading to the pool or running hills at 5am is the last thing I want to do. Modifying Dr. Taylor’s advice, I have a few mantras I use to help me… “This may be the most fun you have all day”, “You love it so do it!” or “You can do anything for x minutes”.

One cold, early January morning at the pool, I joined my colleague Janet in her lane. She was grumbling about the training workout and I shared my mantra with her. She immediately smiled, jumped into the pool, saying “I love it” and tells me she repeats that to herself often. She recently completed her third Ironman Triathlon and had a great race. She attributed much of her success with the ability to overcome overwhelm during her training. This allowed her not only to best prepare for the race, but also experience joy during the race because she focused on the fact that she was doing what she loves.

Find something you love (and this goes for a chore, task, activity or hobby) and keep going back to that thought when things don’t go your way. Remember, gratitude and joy!

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