A common theme I’ve noticed amongst nearly everyone I speak to about essentially anything ever is that they are stressed. People are tired, busy, and overwhelmed. Students, part-time employees, full-time employees, people who work 100 hour weeks, and people who are unemployed and on the job hunt — so many people have something stressing and overwhelming them, to the point where it is nearly incapacitating.
But stress in all forms is an unfortunate reality of life sometimes. And it sucks, because when you’re on the outside looking in, it is easy to point out how you may be able to solve — or better, prevent — the problems that stress you out. But in the moment, it is hard to think clearly enough to even take the first few steps to tackling your overwhelming list of to-dos and getting to a place where you can breathe easily.
But fear not! As a person who has experienced everything from run-of-the-mill anxiety to I-have-fifteen-things-to-do-so-I’m-going-to-do-zero-and-take-a-nap anxiety, I’ve come up with a two-step system that keeps me grounded and helps me think clearly during times when stress begins to overwhelm me. If you’re feeling stressed, try doing these two things today — they might really make a difference. (I know they have for me.)
1. Think of your worst-case scenario.
It doesn’t always feel good to do, but this is the number one way I relieve stress when I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Instead of blocking out the thought of doing all the things that overwhelm me and letting the anxiety take over, I force myself to acknowledge the scariest thought of all: the absolute worst thing that could happen as a result of the things that are stressing me out.
Here is an example of this way of thinking that was on rotation while I was in college:
I am overwhelmed by the idea of writing my paper. I could start writing it and struggle through the whole thing. I could push through and finish writing, and do a terrible job. The worst-case scenario here is that I will get a bad grade on the paper. If I get a bad grade, I could fail the class. If I fail the class, I will repeat it. If I repeat it, it will be expensive. If all of these worst-case things somehow happen, I will pay the money, do the class, pass it.
After going through all of the worst things that could happen if I started writing the paper I was feeling anxious about, I was able to remind myself that all of the problems that could come from it were entirely fixable.
Forcing myself to acknowledge all of the worst possibilities and outcomes of the stressful situation allows me to resolve it before the bad things even have a chance to come true. Armed with the comfort of my preemptive solution, I feel automatically less overwhelmed and better about tackling my to-do list. By pulling this trick out when you’re feeling overwhelmed by a lot of tasks, problems, or responsibilities at once, you can find some peace in your own mind by reminding yourself that even in the worst-case, you will still be okay.
2. Think of one solution.
It sounds really corny when people talk about how long journeys start with just one step, but it really is true — I’ve even written before about how I like to “swiss cheese” my projects and tasks by “poking holes” in the projects in the tiniest ways possible, like opening the Word document and writing my name on it, then closing it and leaving the rest for later.
Sometimes, you really can’t fix all of your problems. Sometimes, you maybe can, but you’re just not sure where to start. Sometimes, it is so overwhelming to even consider tackling everything on your plate that it seems impossible. Sometimes, even if you can fix your problems, you might not be able to fix it entirely, and you might not be able to fix it right away. So what can you do?
My best advice: think of one solution. To one problem. Even if it is the smallest, simplest project on your list, think of a solution, and fix it. Try to forget about everything else that’s worrying and overwhelming you for a minute, and just tackle that one solution to your one problem. Once it is done and you are able to cross even one small thing off your list, you’ll feel at least a tiny bit lighter. If you’re lucky, the one accomplishment will get the ball rolling, the momentum will keep up, and you’ll become much more motivated to tackle more. Rinse and repeat until that to-do list is blank, and you feel calm and awesome.
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