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How to Use Pacing and 'Single-Tasking' to Reduce Overwhelm and Anxiety

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My voice gets louder as the self-imposed deadline nears. We have three minutes to get everyone loaded into the car with all of their accoutrements for the school field trip. No, wait, one minute! And now one of my children is refusing to go unless a particular book is found. She starts rifling through the bookshelf, tossing books behind her little body, arms swinging. We are certainly going to be late.

Finally, we manage the impossible. We are all sitting in the car, hearts galloping, water bottles filled, tennis shoes on and favorite book found. And it hits me like a lead weight — we have plenty of time to get where we are going.

Plus, I was rushing everyone in an unkind way for the sake of timeliness to a field trip. They responded with the appropriate amount of angst that pressure compels. And now we are sitting in the car having accomplished everything I hoped for, and I am utterly unsatisfied.

I have no desire to trade punctuality for peace of mind. This is what it looks like to give into overwhelm — that sensation there is too much to do in not enough time, that I must hurry, that I am likely to fail. It’s miserable, and it makes the people around me miserable. I used to continually and constantly live in anxiety of some form or another. I thought it was a completely natural, acceptable response to the pangs of life.

And then I started to see my little children exhibit the same behaviors and thought to myself, “That is completely inappropriate and unproductive.”


Overwhelm comes from helplessness.

According to psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD., overwhelm is “feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion.” It can also look like anxiety, fatigue, restlessness, irritability and worry. These emotions are excessive and often out of proportion with the actual events transpiring around a person.

One of the roots of overwhelm is feeling helpless, according to psychotherapist Peter Michaelson. We feel overwhelmed by things we can’t influence or control, and then we worry about potential outcomes that are unlikely to happen. In other words, the struggle is coming from inside of us, it is not from the outside challenges. Sometimes things are more difficult than they actually have to be.

This can be hard to swallow when living in a state of overwhelm is the “norm.” How can it be possible I am causing some of this emotional upset? How can I operate differently when this is my one mode of operation?

Ironically, it is in doing the opposite of what our bodies and brains are telling us to do that we find hope for getting out of overwhelm. Our bodies and brains are excellent at defending us against perceived attacks and fears. They can go into fight-or-flight mode in a millisecond. But we have to give them a new way to respond to the stimuli around us.

Slow down instead of hurry up.

When we are operating in a state of overwhelm, our brain is often telling us to hurry up. It says, “You have so much to do and you are not likely to get it all done, so start rushing.” This leads to that panicky feeling.

Judith Orloff, M.D., says it is this very act of rushing that makes us feel more overwhelmed. It’s “running on more cylinders than you’ve got” until you’re in a downward spiral emotionally and physically.

We rush for a variety of reasons. Maybe we have set unrealistic expectations for ourselves to begin with. Or maybe we are struggling with anxiety and feel rushing will help us get things under control. Or maybe we are afraid of stillness and silence, and not being or doing enough. This pace of life is addicting and also self-defeating.

Orloff recommends intentionally slowing your pace, taking short breaks during busy times and making time for stillness or meditation. By resisting the urge to try to squeeze in unrealistic amounts of activities or work, we can have rest in our lives. This enables us to maintain equilibrium more easily, to keep a sense of balance. But what about those times when we are busy and it feels out of our control?

“Single-task” to reduce anxiety.

One of the lies we give into is that busyness and overwhelm go hand-in-hand. If I’m very busy (which we all often are), then overwhelm is the necessary and unfortunate side effect. It is in both slowing down and “single-tasking” — the very opposite of what our psyche is telling us to do in the moment of overwhelm — that gives us the results we are ultimately looking for. If we try to accomplish everything by overlapping tasks, we might get more done, but we often lose our sense of peace.

Because of new technology, multitasking is easier than ever. I can listen to podcasts while I clean, speak out my texts while I drive, look over my checklists and social media in the grocery line. These choices make us feel like we are getting so much done. We are being successful. The list is getting checked off.

But there is a cost. It is constant busyness. There is little space for quiet, for reflection, for our minds to rest. Is it worth compromising our peace and our long-term health? Will it even matter in the long-run that I checked my email in the grocery line? Probably not.

“Multitasking by definition implies we are doing too many things at once,” says psychologist L. Kevin Chapman. He suggests we shift our perspective. “We have to change our expectation that everything has to be completed right now ‘or else.’” He believes this is what causes us to revert to that state of overwhelm and anxiety.

Take the strain off your brain.

When we are busy and we can’t immediately control our workload, we can take the strain off by limiting what we work on in the moment, and in one day. If your mind is a beehive like mine, use a bullet list, journal or app to jot down the nagging things you are tempted to multitask. When you return to them later, you might not even find them as important as before.

Another suggestion is to unload your brain at night before you sleep so you aren’t awakened by unfinished thoughts or restlessness. This lets your brain know you will get back to the important things in time and it can really rest. The more we pay attention to our workload and the way it affects our mood and our pace, the more we are likely to moderate the amount of work we take on. And the more likely we are to battle that sense of overwhelm less and less.

For years I accepted overwhelm was my burden to bear, and it often boiled over into anxiety. Although it still tempts me greatly, urging me to hurry and to get out of sorts, I am more likely to stop and take a deep breath today, and to get the upper hand. I know I have this anxious bent, but it doesn’t have to rule my life. And when I prioritize peace over a frenetic pace, it doesn’t.

You can follow my journey on Angie Gibbons.

Unsplash image by Jazael Melgoza

Originally published: November 7, 2019
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