Breathe and Focus

I have this incredible opportunity next month to give a workshop at my local high school on mental emotional resilience. Its purpose is to help students choose their actions instead of allowing their emotions to choose their actions for them. It’s Tuesday morning and I have more than a few weeks before any of this takes place. I have an hour or so before going into work, so I begin looking over my ‘to do’ list. Besides the workshop development, I also have a parent talk to finalize, and some contacts I need to follow up on with other schools, as well as other tasks to related to additional workshops I’m developing. It feels a bit daunting looking over everything at once, and as I gaze over what I need to do, I realize I haven’t written a blog for this week yet! How could I have missed that?

So, to buy myself some time (basically, because I am feeling overwhelmed by my ‘to do’ list’) I open my email… Always a bad idea without a purpose. I see that I have an email from my assistant athletic director seeing if I would be interested in giving a talk about the role emotions play in sports – basically a talk about the mental game. This is awesome! Isn’t it? It should be. I can’t decide if I’m feeling anxious or excited at the moment.

“What was I doing?” My mind is racing a bit. Already creating an ‘emotions in sports’ talk in my head. I can feel my gaze avoiding my ‘to do’ list (the feelings of anxiousness over that list has gained literal weight in my mind). My hand (which is a bit sweaty) picks up the phone and turns on the recorder. I go right into talking for 15 minutes about mental emotional resilience in sports. I don’t remember deciding to do this now, but subconsciously I feel my brain getting swollen and feeling tight in my skull. I’m certain that if I could just get this ‘sports talk thingy’ off the table I’d feel a lot better. I go to listen back to my recording, and, unsurprisingly, it’s not flawless. To be honest I feel even more over-loaded now because I feel like I’ve wasted 15 minutes on something that is not 100% perfect out the gate!

My self- imposed pressure grows bigger with the newly created judgement I just picked up. “What’s that talk that I give on judgement?” I wonder to myself. Dammit! I’m wasting time, wheels churning, not on how to do my best work, but how to feel less pressure in my thick gray matter. Nothings getting done (right…more judgement). My gaze stops looking inward, and I see (a bit late) that the car in front of me has stopped. I hit the brakes quick enough to avoid running into it, but I am plenty close to its rear to have a front row seat to all of the bumper stickers it’s sporting. One sticks out from all the others:

“Just breathe.”

Wow. Could it be that simple? I decide to take a deep breath. Then two. As I’m taking my third, I begin to feel my body relax a bit. My mind still resists and continues to and pull my focus back to all the things it believes I need to do all at once. But I gently resist. I keep my gaze on the bumper and my attention on my breath with the help of those two simple words. Just breathe.

The definition of being overwhelmed means to be buried under a huge mass. The mere perception of this can elicit in us very real feelings of anxiety. On a physiological level anxiety can make our heart beat rapidly, impede our concentration and our ability to remember, and cause a tightness in our chest. Basically, when a huge mass of uncomfortable emotions land on top of us, we literally feel like there is a weight upon our chest. By slowing up my breathing, and paying attention to every breath, I was able to open up my chest, take in more air, slow my heart beat a bit, and have oxygen and blood flow to my brain again. This, in turn, allowed for me to remember a basic truth: we can only focus on one thing at a time.

That feeling of be overwhelmed is created when our focus is scattered on too many tasks at once. The quickest way to open up space in our minds is to write down the tasks we need to do, prioritize them accordingly, and then place our focus on one task at a time. Now that sounds like an easy choice that anybody can make and then go off and do it. And maybe some people can. But I promise you it has always taken me a great deal of practice, and still does.

Practicing focus through sitting meditation or just making sure that your mind and thoughts stay in the present moment, are two of the quickest antidotes to reducing feelings of overwhelm. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have uncomfortable feelings as we perform difficult tasks that are important to us. But, by keeping our minds on a singular task, other things are unable to overwhelm us with uncomfortable feelings and hinder our performance in the present.

I pulled over to the side of the road. I still had some time to before my first patient. Instead of using that time to try and bull my way through one project I took another 5 minutes to just sit and breathe in my car. I used the rest of my time to prioritize my list things to do, so the next time I had a chance to get some work done, I wouldn’t bring a huge mass of overwhelming emotions with me. As I went into my office, with my to-do list was more manageable, I felt more confident about my work and found it a great deal easier to keep my mind clear and focused on the present moment and my patient as they walked through the door.

What strategies have you used to help yourself reduce your anxiety and overwhelm, stay mindful in the present, focused on what you can actually accomplish with the time you had available, and therefore ended up being more productive?

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