02/11/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Feeling Overwhelmed Can Feel Overwhelming

Life can sometimes feel pretty overwhelming. We've all been there from time to time, and generally we recognize the symptoms even if we can't always do anything about them.

When I feel overwhelmed, I tend to stop and do nothing. My perception of being overwhelmed leads to an almost paralysis. Of course, that inactivity leaves me feeling even more overwhelmed because I am, for obvious reasons, doing even less that I was doing before I stopped doing anything.

If I could realize that I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed before I am, indeed, overwhelmed, perhaps I could avoid the complete activity stop, but that would require a little more self-awareness than I apparently possess. I can, however, develop that self-awareness that allows me, if not to keep from feeling overwhelmed, to at least do something about it once I am overwhelmed and involuntarily inactive. And if I can do that, so can you. I've learned a few things about this situation, and I'm happy to begin sharing them with you.

Here's the first thing I've learned.

Narrowing our focus can help us avoid the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed. We are all doubtless familiar with the pithy saying about being unable to see the forest for the trees. Seeing the entire forest can on occasion be useful. We are able to take in all facets of a situation. However, it seems to me that if we spend too much time absorbing the entire forest, we will inevitably become completely overwhelmed by the number of trees, the species of trees, the wildlife living among the trees, the birds living in the trees, the possibilities of tree diseases and forest fires and frosts, the beauty of the trees, and on and on and on until we are mesmerized and immobilized and overwhelmed and stressed out by the forest in its entirety.
If I find myself unable to move away from the enormity of the forest, it's time to focus on just one tree. If that one tree seems like too much, it's time for me to focus on one branch or even on one leaf of that one tree. Narrowing the focus to the minutiae of the situation can make the forest seem more manageable.

Okay. I get it that few of us are forest rangers or horticulturists and that we rarely have occasions to take in an entire actual forest. We do, however, have constant opportunities to take in the enormity of our obligations, of our projects, of our daily chores, and even of our possibilities. Those are the metaphorical forests at which we daily gaze, and those are the metaphorical forests that all too frequently leave us feeling overwhelmed and stressed and failed even before we begin.

Remember that single leaf on that single branch of the single tree of our vast forest? Now is the time to walk away from the metaphor and into reality. Of course, it is important to look at a project in its entirety. It is also essential to narrow our focus to manageable tasks. No project, regardless of size or complexity, can be completed immediately in its entirety. Project completion requires manageable tasks and steps.

And that is the part that I find so easy to forget. Even doing the laundry can seem overwhelming if I see only the hamper overflowing with dirty clothes. However, if I pause and remember that clean clothes folded neatly and placed in drawers is the result of incremental steps, I can perhaps reclaim activity and actually wash clothes instead of allowing the hamper to continue overflowing as I become increasingly immobilized because I see only the enormity of the task.

Not only is it okay to do just one thing at a time, sometimes it's essential. Doing just one thing at a time can help us feel less overwhelmed and more in control of our tasks and our lives.

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