Last week, I got a call from my mom. Ever talk to someone and knew as soon as they started talking something was wrong?
She spoke slow, the fatigue deep in her voice.
“You probably saw it on the news…”
When someone starts with a sentence like that, you know it’s going to be bad.
I don’t watch the news, and I tend to read world news and not the local stuff. I hadn’t heard a thing.
The day before there was a fire on my mom’s floor of her apartment, and the Red Cross had set up a shelter for the residents in the church across the street.
She was calling to tell me she and my uncle were ok. As soon as the black smoke billowed into their apartment she got the both of them down the fire escape stairs and out the building. They’d been treated for smoke-inhalation and he’d gotten through a few seizures (my uncle’s a brain-injury survivor), but they were ok.
That they were both alive and uninjured was good news. Even better, their apartment was hopefully undamaged other than the smoke – the fire had started in the other wing.
My mom and the other residents were waiting to move back into their apartments. It shouldn’t take that long for them to assess the damage… after all, the fire hadn’t spread far, right?
The days went by. The residents were updated sometimes twice a day on the building.
The building’s air quality had to be checked. The result? Asbestos.
But they were still expecting to be allowed back in this weekend. Then came the news.
The entire building had to be gutted. Ceilings and drywall torn out in every apartment.
The residents’ leases?
200 seniors who had been expecting to move back in were suddenly homeless.
If there’s a situation that would instantly throw you into overwhelm, that would be it.
But there’s my mom, soldiering on.
Overwhelm is Caused By…
You might be one of those rare people who has never been overwhelmed in their life.
That’s not me, and it’s probably not you either.
For me, feeling overwhelmed is a lot like feeling trapped. You’re in a situation and there’s no way out.
And that’s exactly what causes it. Overwhelm happens when we don’t have the resources to deal with the current situation (or just feel we don’t).
My mom gets stressed out, and sure, she gets overwhelmed – she’s not some invincible superwoman. Add on some health issues and some days are really difficult for her.
But most of the time when she’s faced with an incredibly overwhelming situation, she goes into what she’d call “go mode.”
When I was in 5th grade we were evicted from our home with no warning (I wrote about it here on Tiny Buddha). Instead of breaking down, my mom got our family through it.
She’s gone through a lot of tough times. Here’s 5 steps to take when you’re feeling overwhelmed I’ve learned from her.
1. Rally the Troops
I don’t know how she does it.
Whenever she faces an overwhelming situation, Mom rallies the army.
I’m a classic introvert, so to me it’s like magic. When mom’s in trouble (or someone else she knows is), people seem to appear out of thin air to help.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Aliens, it’s like when the space marines are being ambushed and the one soldier is screaming “They’re coming outta the walls!”
… only in this case, it’s people helping and not murderous xenomorphs.
Many situations are overwhelming if we try and “go it alone.”
My mom can be proud now and then and sometimes doesn’t like accepting help, but when an impossible situation happens she picks up the phone.
We get evicted and can’t afford a moving truck? She picks up the phone and it’s there an hour later.
A family can’t afford to pay their heating bill? She connects them with different people and organizations, and the money appears.
The nuns in the convent down the street need food? She makes some calls and it’s there.
Going it alone doesn’t always work. Friends are resources, and if you need help, they’ll often step up in those impossible situations.
It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help in times of trouble – it’s a way to bring people together.
2. The Smallest Action
When overwhelm hits we can easily get stuck.
And when we’re stuck, we might just shut down… and the situation get worse. It can be a dire situation when we’re on the verge of a breakdown, or something really simple like my desk becoming a disaster area.
My mom picking up the phone to tell a friend what’s going on might not seem like much, but taking that one small step does something special.
We might want to solve a big problem with BIG ACTION. But often, the biggest problems are solved with simple actions.
In “Switch,” Chip and Dan Heath write about a country in Asia with serious malnutrition problems among their children in rural areas.
The BIG ACTION to solve that would be to bring in all kinds of organizations, change their food crops to be more nutritious, begin government monitoring programs, and… the solution is suddenly prohibitively expensive and also slow.
Instead, the answer was to look at the kids who were getting enough nutrition. The researchers did that, and found it was just a matter of different ingredients being used in the food – ingredients that were plentiful, but not usually given to children.
Instead of making it a huge humanitarian effort, they just had the moms with healthy children hold cooking classes for the rest of their village.
Big problems do not require big solutions. They require simple, actionable ones.
Big solutions take huge time and effort… and may never get off the ground. Small actions are easier to take and can build momentum.
When you’re overwhelmed, what’s the smallest action you can take to start moving yourself forward?
3. Look for the Good
This is some of the most common advice ever. But it’s still great.
If we look at a bad situation as the end of the world, we’ll easily crush ourselves and make it harder to bounce back.
I’m talking to my mom on the phone from the shelter she’s at, and she’s not talking about how everything is over for them.
She’s telling me about how it’s bringing everyone together, and how my uncle’s getting more social interaction than he’s had “in years.”
She’s not ignoring the problem (which I see too often when people talk about “being positive.”). Instead, she’s looking for the benefit of the situation.
If you’re only focused on the negative, it’s going to be hard to get yourself out of the situation – you cut yourself off from the resources you need.
Instead of looking at everything that’s going wrong, look for what’s going right. This helps you build resilience and bounce back more easily.
If you’re not used to doing this, it can be hard. Very hard. It’s a skill, and if it’s new to you, start by writing the benefits of a situation down on paper.
4. What’s Your Mission?
When we’re feeling the world coming down on us, it can be hard to stay strong. With that much pressure on us, we can easily crack.
But if you have a mission, a purpose in your work, then it’s much easier to handle the stress that comes with it.
For Mom, that purpose, that duty, was keeping her family together, working to help me have a good childhood and keep my uncle, well, alive.
I think phrases like, “discovering your life purpose” are thrown around a lot nowadays. It doesn’t have to be your “life” purpose… and our purpose can change from situation to situation.
As Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” it’s not asking what you want out of life, but rather what life is asking of you.
5. The Things We Can’t Change
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but my mom is deeply religious. She’s a very, very devout Catholic. Some people can become hard headed and unaccepting when they become really devout, but my mom’s very accepting and loving, even if she doesn’t fully understand sometimes.
Anyway, there’s something called the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
There’s a lot my mom can’t handle. Same goes for any of us.
Most of us can’t do anything about things like Ebola outbreak,s the war in Syria, or the mass shootings that occur too frequently here in the US.
The same goes for the smaller things: Your boss who comes in angry one morning. A friend who has an emergency and cancels on you. Your company losing revenue and issuing layoffs.
There’s so much we can’t control. And if we focus on it, thinking we should be able to do something about it, we’re going to cause ourselves loads of unnecessary stress.
Whenever something out of mom’s control happens, she says she’s “putting it in God’s hands.”
You might not be Christian, and you might not be religious or spiritual in the least. That’s ok.
The point is, she’s seeing what she can’t do anything about and letting go of it.
She can’t go back in time and prevent the fire that started. And she can’t do anything about her lease that’s been terminated.
It’s hard on her. Letting go of something doesn’t mean she suddenly stops having feelings toward the situation – how could she?
But it does mean she’s focusing on what she can do, whether helping my uncle get through another rough night, working with the caseworkers each of the building’s residents has been assigned, or just taking some time to listen to the other residents.
It can difficult – really difficult – to let something go, because it forces us to admit we’re not in control of everything.
When you really think about it, there’s very little in our lives we’re actually in control of. When we focus on what we can’t affect, we’re setting ourselves up for overwhelm and misery.
Instead, go back to #2 in this list and focus on what action you can take. In a given situation, what do you actually have control over?
Focus on that.
Hard times run the risk of any of us being overwhelmed. But like my mom, it’s you react to it that makes the difference.