We all feel overwhelmed sometimes. Sometimes all the time. It doesn’t matter whether you have relatively few responsibilities or a ton of them. Whether you’re a full-time professional or stay-at-home-mom—or both. Overwhelm is subjective, just like stress and anxiety. What one person finds exciting or challenging, another can find, frankly, cause for a freak-out. Luckily, the tools that can come to the rescue when we feel overwhelmed or stressed are universally applicable. They work no matter what you’re facing. And help you keep living the maximized life you want.
Here are a few I’ve learned from years of yoga and mindfulness study and practice, my own life experience with anxiety and panic attacks, and have taught to academics, professionals, and parents through workshops at venues including the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and corporations.
10 YOGA + MINDFULNESS TOOLS
1. Labelling thoughts. Thoughts are thoughts; it doesn’t matter if they’re worrying ones, planning ones, rehashing ones, or imagining ones. We can practice labelling our thoughts as simply “thinking”, or get more specific with “worrying”, “rehashing,” “planning,” or imagining. Either way, by labelling them we often find some space between our essential, ultimately calm and strong selves, and our worrying mind. The labels help us to recognize what’s happening and take charge of what’s happening in our head, rather than letting our monkey mind run the show. “I’m imagining, and I know I do that when I’m worried or feeling anxiety. It doesn’t actually help. So I’m going to let those thoughts go, and move onto something else.”
2. Be here now.The best something else we can move onto is this present moment. This moment, though it might seem overwhelming, can become a tool for anchoring into grounded stability and strength. Mindfulness techniques using our senses enable us to focus our attention and intention.
3. Walking meditation. Anytime you’re walking anywhere is a good time to practice mindfulness. Notice the sensations beneath your feet, when your heal connects with the floor and then your weight rolls to the ball of your foot. Just notice it, and you’ll notice yourself coming deeper into your physical experience of the moment, and out of your overwhelmed, anxious mind.
4. Multi-tasking myth. Nobody can truly do more than one thing at a time. (I like to talk on the phone while folding laundry or doing dishes, but, as my mom is quick to point out, when I do that the conversation is a lot less involved.) We’re most comfortable and calm when we’re mindful and that’s easiest to do when we’re doing one thing at a time. I know, it’s not always possible. But most of us can do less multi-tasking. Check email every 20 minutes instead of every time one comes in. Turn your cell phone alerts off so that you’re in charge of when you respond to texts or emails. Consider letting the phone ring if you’re in the middle of something. Give yourself permission to focus on what’s important to you.
5. Body boost. Our body is right here, right now. Bringing our attention and intention into our body is a highly effective way to counteract the overwhelmed response—where we feel scattered and unfocused. Simply notice what’s happening—especially around your neck and shoulders, chest and throat and stomach. Are your ears up around your neck? Is your throat constricted? Is your breath stuck in your chest and is your stomach tense?
6. Get physical. Once you’ve noticed what’s happening in your body, you’re already halfway towards counteracting the overwhelmed response. The mind and emotions are not separate from the body. They are somatic. So changing your physical reactions will change your emotional-mental reactions. Want proof? Smile. Hold it for at least six seconds. Notice the physiological reactions. So when you notice your shoulders up around your ears, let them drop. When your breath is stuck up in your chest, take your inhale and exhale all the way down to your belly. Feel the difference.
7. Use your breath. On that note, long, deep yogic breathing brings balance to your nervous system by activating the calming systems in your body, including our parasympathetic nervous system, while de-activating the activating systems in our body, including our sympathetic nervous system.
8. Use your breath II. Need something more powerful? When I need to really bring up and let go of some deep stress or tension I do a minute or two of breath of fire (demo’d in this video) followed by lions’ breath.
9. Practice loving-kindness. You are who you are for a reason. We come into this life with mental and emotional patterns (samskaras, in yoga-speak) that I believe can help teach us how to be the best we can be—even ones we perceive as negative. Every worrying pattern, stress pattern, or losing your temper pattern is a tool that we can use to evolve towards our best selves. How? Loving-kindness. Surround that ‘negative’ reaction with unconditional love. Instead of beating ourselves up for feeling overwhelmed, anxious or angry, we just sit with that feeling, noticing everything there is to notice about it. Getting curious about it. “So this is overwhelmed. Huh. I feel this in my stomach, this way in my chest, this way behind my eyes. I seem to be having a hard time accepting the fact that I feel this way. I’m going to shift that into accepting that I feel this way—because feeling this way is an indication of my deeply open, ultimately loving nature.”
10. Lovingly let go. Once we get into the habit of practicing loving-kindness towards ourselves and our patterns, we can get into the habit of letting those patterns go. Because, as Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said “What we resist persists.” When we stop resisting our patterns, and instead dive right into them, they minimize and sometimes even vamoose—all on their own.