Dealing with overwhelm: learning from nature
I was walking alongside the Tetbury River Avon this morning, although it is more of a stream, expecting it be its normal gently flowing self. I often go here when my mind feels too busy or my body too uptight and share in its serenity and the messages the gentle flowing water offers me.
But this morning it was gushing and tumbling along and carrying twigs, branches and leaves with it, forcing its way through gates and over its banks.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the noise and speed of the water, holding my breath as a way to balance myself against the energy all around me.
Gradually, like the seeping in of water itself, I began to notice how once the water had burst over the banks it slowed down and, in some places, formed still pools. I was standing in a mini flood plain!
And as I became aware of the soggy flood plain beneath my feet, my breath began to ease again. The river had taken care of itself and found a way to put down what it could no longer carry. I know over the next few dry days the flood water will seep slowly back into the river at a rate that is bearable, it cannot re-join any quicker than the river can take it.
Standing in the puddled water I began to reflect on my own life and how I have days when I’m rushing around and in a wonderful flow of energy and creativity, I feel vibrant and alive; I have other days when I want to sit quietly and think or design or listen to nature and be in a quiet, gentle flow; and then there are days when the flow is out of control and I begin to feel overwhelmed and like everything will fall apart around me. And I began to wonder that rather than feeling as if things are going to fall apart when I am overwhelmed I could decide where my flood plains are in advance and let the overwhelm spill over in a more managed way, and then plan to deal with the things I wasn’t able to do in a more healthy and managed way, just as the river does.
Things that work for me when I am feeling like my mind is about to burst or my body collapse are to write things in a to do list and date them, or reflect in my journal, or go for a long walk, or listen to music. I find that different types of overwhelm need different actions to calm them, there is no one size fits all. There is no right or wrong way to find your own flood plain.
Here's something you could try
One of the classic tools to help with overwhelm is The Eisenhower Matrix, which many people find simple and easy to remember. Bring to mind each of the things that is worrying you or that needs to be done and place it in one of the 4 boxes, sticky notes are a great aid to this!
The Difference Between Urgent and Important?
Urgent means something that needs immediate action. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, and where we often work in a narrowly focused mindset - like the water gushing along to move it away quickly.
Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term hopes and dreams or mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities - like the water waiting in the flood plains until it is able to rejoin the main stream. There is time to pause and reflect.
Become aware of how you are feeling and thinking and use the metaphor of the flow of a river or stream to help you judge what you need to do now; do you ned to take action fast or can you can take some time to respond? You choose.
Awareness gives you a chance to pause and respond instead of reacting.