One maddening tendency of any small electronic device is that whenever the battery is low, it wastes most of its remaining power beeping and flashing to tell you that battery is low.
Similarly, the human body comes with many self-defeating features. For example, whenever you’re low on oxygen, say while trying to recover your electronic device from the bottom of a public pool, the body goes into panic mode, raises the heart rate and burns away what little oxygen you have to work with.
The mind exhibits this kind of foolishness too. In has a cruel habit of misplacing its wisdom whenever you need it most. There are certain truths I really need to remember when I’m in a panicky state, which is exactly the time they are hardest to remember. So you may want to bookmark these gentle reminders, because the next time you’re overwhelmed you will never remember them.
1. The sky has fallen a thousand times already
I can’t count the number of times my world has ended. At least several dozen times in my life I’ve found myself in a situation so tangled and hopeless that I could not believe I would ever be happy again. Somehow, during each of those personal apocalypses, I forget that each of the previous ones somehow worked themselves out and are no longer relevant. Yet in real-time, the current catastrophe always seems to promise the death or at least permanent disfigurement of my entire life, and I crumple into despair and indignation. If only I could remember that almost all of the problems I’ve ever had are currently solved except the two or three most recent developments. This is just the way life moves along. It is my problems that are always marching to the gallows, not me.
I’m sure your sky has fallen many times before too. The overwhelmed mind underestimates the scale of a human life and therefore over-calculates the ultimate importance of any particular problem. Don’t be fooled.
2. Your problems are the same problems human beings have always had
You will never end up finding a way to suffer that hasn’t been fully explored yet. Heartbreak, death of loved ones, sickness and old age, chronic pain, shame, addiction, failure, poverty, and introspective nightmares are all realms that have been braved by people consistently and exhaustively for thousands of years, and to degrees much worse than yours. There are ultimately only a few basic kinds of human trouble, and they’ve all been suffered and confronted before.
Humankind’s vast experience with suffering is an asset to every one of us, because for every classic human problem there is a world of literature about the best ways to deal with it that other humans have found, and it’s never been easier to get access to this wisdom.
3. Being overwhelmed comes from a breakdown of your thoughts about your life, not a breakdown of your life
The feeling of being overwhelmed creates a convincing illusion. It makes you think everything is happening at once, but that’s not really possible. While different conditions of your life situation can happen concurrently — say your debts are in collections at the same time your relationship is falling apart — life still only unfolds one moment at a time, and it’s quite rare that you need to do more than one small thing in any given moment. Each issue might demand that you deal with a number of difficult moments, but as a rule you only need to deal physically with one particular moment at a time. The “everything is happening at once” feeling is a mental phenomenon that doesn’t reflect the linear way in which concurrent life problems actually unfold.
Thoughts change over much more quickly than life’s actual happenings do, and so in one minute of worried thinking you can experience a dozen problems mentally. It’s easy to get lost in this abstract realm, thinking that there’s too much happening “at once” to possibly know what to do, but when you’re ready to actually deal with a problem in the physical world, you can safely ignore the others for the moment it takes to act on one of them.
4. It is mathematically unlikely that your problems are as bad as you think they are
Most people seem to be pessimists. I certainly have that tendency and I’m slowly re-calibrating toward the optimistic side. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not hard to understand why we tend toward catastrophizing our setbacks. If you run from every snake just because it may be a deadly one, then you’re less likely to die by snakebite, even though 85% of the time you are running from a creature that ought to be running from you. Pessimistic tendencies may aid self-preservation overall, across a lifetime of ambiguous situations, but this comes at the cost of increased stress and a lot of unnecessary running from things.
To know you are a pessimist is to know that things are generally better than they appear to be. A pessimistic mind will usually create a mental image of the situation that’s much more dangerous and difficult to address than it ultimately will be in real life.
And for many of us, we’re not talking about slight exaggerations of the seriousness of our challenges. On the many occasions in which I realized I may have made a mistake at work, usually it expands quickly to certainty that I have made a mistake, that I will be found out and fired, and that I will never work in this industry again. Within a half a minute I’m suffering a mental movie of myself pounding the pavement on a gloomy day, handing resumes out to fast food managers. If this mental reflex sounds familiar — and if you’re overwhelmed often, it probably is — you are likely a pessimist, and you can almost depend on the situation turning out to be easier to deal with than you initially imagined.
5. Things change pretty quickly when you start doing things instead of thinking so much
The darkness in the overwhelmed person’s mind comes from the feeling of helplessness, and helplessness comes from the belief that nothing you do matters. Although this feeling is common, it is almost never true. However bad the external circumstances actually get, they are probably not quite Auschwitz, and even there you would be able to fall back on Viktor Frankl’s great discovery — that nobody can take away your freedom to choose your way of relating to your circumstances. Wherever you are, you can do something to make the rest of the day better than it would otherwise be, and that means you are not helpless. No matter how small the action, once you see you are capable of improving your position, the feeling of helplessness cannot survive unless you want it to.
Overwhelm is an affliction of messy thoughts rather than messy circumstances, and this becomes clearer when you start acting on the circumstances. Repeatedly throughout my life, a hellish day becomes bearable the moment I make a dent in just one of my dilemmas. It spoils the mirage of total catastrophe, and makes it hard to remain a passive participant in your bad day.
6. It is most tempting to not do things when you most need to do things
Another self-defeating habit of the normal human mind. There is a tendency to freeze when things feel like they’re going off the rails, for two reasons.
The first reason is that you are afraid to make things worse. The ground feels shaky everywhere, and in your apparent stupor of incompetence you don’t want to step in the wrong place. But the bigger reason is that by making a decision to do something you are deciding to take responsibility for where you are, and that’s not a natural reflex for most of us. Particularly when you believe your problem is someone else’s fault, it’s tempting to wait for the person responsible to actually be a responsible person. That doesn’t usually happen, and often I’m mistaken about who is at fault anyway. I know I always want it to be someone else’s fault, and I don’t think I’m unusual there. Believing another party is responsible is tempting because it lets you fantasize about a deus ex machina ending to your crisis, the timely swooping-in of the cavalry, which makes for a lame movie because it makes a fool of the protagonist, and never really happens in real life anyway.
Defy the temptation to cross your arms and wait for some form of cosmic justice to save you — or at least remember that you will feel a temptation to do nothing, right when you should probably be doing something.