(A wellness column by Kelly Spencer: writer, life coach, yoga & meditation teacher, holistic healer and a mindful life enthusiast!)
Part of my business is an organic restaurant. The staff wears blue aprons with our logo on them. Each week, I take them home and we wash them. Monday morning, as the work towels get washed along with the aprons, the inevitable frustration happens. During the drying period the aprons, as they tumble and toss, begin to intertwine. They then twist into a convoluted messy mesh of frustration.
This week, with a catering event for a small wedding and two more big events the following weeks, I found myself a little more stressed than usual. But the aprons needed detangling and to be taken into work, despite any overwhelming experiences I may have been having.
As soon as I approached the contorted pile of dish clothes and crisscross apron straps, I could feel my frustration level heighten. I hadn’t even started and I could feel my grievances elevate. With a sigh, I grab the pile and start trying to pull apart. The harder I pull, the tighter the knots seem to get. The more impatient I became, the more the mess seemed to get messier.
I put the pile back down into the bucket as I stared at it with contempt, as if it were somehow aware of my busy mind and schedule and was in some way personally being knotty to annoy me. I started to laugh at my notions. The fact is, I was the only one making this situation messier by allowing my overwhelming feelings and current life experiences go unchecked and allowing them to spill over into the simplest of tasks.
I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths in and out and approached with a more gentle patience. I slowly pulled at the main knot in the centre to loosen the hold and expose my next step. Mindfully, I observed and traced the ends and un-weaved them, following a path that I could see when I slowed down. Within minutes, I could see each apron clearly, folded them and put in a pile to take to work.
I could not help but see the parallels to life when it gets overwhelming, challenging and sometimes just plain hard. So here are some thoughts on what to do when life gets overwhelming?
1. Stop and breathe. When we are stressed out our respiratory system takes a hit. Our breath can become shallow and quicker but we take in less oxygen. This shallow stress breath can trigger our stress hormone called cortisol to heighten which can have all kinds of adverse effects on the body and mind. When you catch yourself in stressed moment, stop and take 5-10 full and steady deep breaths. Let the first three breaths be inhales through the nose and with big auditory exhales through the mouth. Feel the stressful moment release with these big exhales. Then continue to breathe in and out through the nose only in a full, slow and steady way. Within a few seconds you should be a little more back on track.
2. Don’t take it personally. Much like the apron ties that I felt were trying to tick me off, when we are overwhelmed we tend to take things personally. When we are not thinking mindfully and awareness of our thoughts and feelings and where they are stemming from, we can sometimes feel like people (or even objects) are “mistreating" us by perceiving things as being directed towards us when they are not. Or perhaps someone is reading an email on their phone and you are trying to talk to them but they are ignoring you. You feel they are treating you rudely and poorly. But what if that person was just reading an email about their aunt’s serious medical diagnosis? Inquire within and ask yourself if you are creating something that is not there or judging a situation without all the information and don’t take it personally.
3. Slow down to speed up. Have you ever woken up late, stubbed your toe on the way to the bathroom, spilled your coffee down your top, had to change your top, got to the car and realized you forgot your keys, got in the car to realize you had to run back inside for something you forgot? When we are rushing around like a fart in a wind storm, things are bound to stink up. Slow down. Take your deep breaths. Rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off will only get ourselves hurt, more stressed and more overwhelmed. In the end, you will get further ahead by slowing down.
4. Pull it a part. Often when we are overwhelmed it is the outcome from many different piles that are stacking up. Most of us can handle one or two piles to tackle. But when the car needs new tires, the plumbing the bathroom needs fixing, your relationship needs some quality time, the lawn and gardens need maintenance, you have three different work projects on the go, and double the amount of social obligations, then the overwhelmed life wins the round. Pull it apart one by one. I like to take a sheet of paper and draw lines to make 4-8 boxes. At the top of each box, I write the heading of the pile that needs attention. The act of separating the areas seems less like a knotted mess on its own. Under each heading, I write two lists. The first list is my action plan: what can I do about this? The second list is what is out of my control. I focus on my action plan with awareness of what I have to let go and turn over to the universe.
5. Prioritize. Once you pull it apart, there is clarity that brings some ease. It feels less overwhelming and more doable. But if you have lots of boxes listed, it can still feel like a lot to implement. So stay in the moment and prioritize. What needs your attention first, then second and so on. This might change on a daily basis, so let go of preconceived controlled and well-structured plans. Allow some fluidity to flow through this process. What does this moment ask of me? By staying mindful to each moment, each day our prioritization of our needs can keep us more on track.
6. Release. Later that day, I booked in a half hour massage. As she pressed her hands from top of shoulder blade to mid-back, it was like driving down a gravel road there were so many knots in my back. I can’t believe how relaxing it was. Do what you have to do to decompress, release and relax. You can get to all the to-do lists once you are feeling more grounded. Go for a walk. Sit in the woods. Laugh often.
7. Gratitude. I am a big list person. The visual of what needs to get done assists my clarity and vision. I have lists to do just in each moment. I also have vision boards of long term lists. One of my favorite things to do is put a “check mark” when completed. So when you pull it apart on your sheet and you implement and complete a task on your action plan list, check it off. Heck, use a bright red marker. Gratitude is an amazing high vibrational feeling to carry. As you check off your list, there is a sense of gratitude, completion and success... which feels good!
8. Change if needed. Since I opened the restaurant in 2012, the aprons come home and get washed on a weekly basis. This past week I ordered everyone that works at the Indigo Lounge restaurant their own apron. They will take it home and wash it themselves before their shifts. Not sure why this didn’t happen sooner. Things don’t always have to be as they were, just because that is always the way they have been. Be okay with change.
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