How do you focus in extremely stressful long-term situations?
June 30, 2011 8:33 AM   Subscribe

You know those intimidating situations or projects that strike terror into your heart? How do you think and act, even as your body's stress symptoms shoot through the roof?

I have something going on that is so stressful that the stress symptoms show up everywhere in my life. They grow much, much worse when I try to WORK ON the thing, which is not at all helpful.

My chest tightens, my heart pounds, my brain sounds like a jet engine is taking off, fingernails start scraping down the chalkboard, the walls of doom start closing in… It isn't a panic attack; it's just miserable. I'm plagued by self-doubt, expectation of failure, "what?? I have NO idea how to figure that out," and much frustration.

Even when I put on my logic hat, I don't think I'm blowing this out of proportion. Each path involves lots of risk; I could lose a hundred thousand dollars; I could end up in foreclosure; I could inadvertently prolong the process by several years during a time when I really want to start a family.

I won't get into all the sources of financial stress, but this situation is essentially financial. The fundamental challenge is how to do something on a budget that is far too small, or how to get out of having to do it. Either choice could mess up my finances for many years in the future. Besides that, even this planning phase involves expenses that are large and surprisingly hard to control.

Worst is the uncertainty around how to proceed. It has proven impossible to get enough information to rationally choose the best path, so I live with this sense that I'm probably screwing up any time I take any major action. But at that moment, taking the less active path could also be a mistake. No path is a sure success, and no path has much margin for error. Doing one path, then realizing I should've done the other might mean the difference between getting foreclosed on or not.

Every step is something I've never done before and do not know how to handle. The experts agree that I'm in over my head, but I cannot afford to have them take it off my hands. I can only afford an hour or two of their direction, and an hour or two for them to review my work. Then, I spend months doing something that I've never done before and screw up five times before finally succeeding. Then, new task.

Ideally, I'd spend more time working on this -- that's where this question comes in. I get too stressed and have to take breaks, or I avoid a task for a week, or I work inefficiently. The activities themselves are not that bad. What makes it bad is just the high level of fear, and the misery that comes from constant anxiety, a sense of impending failure, and guilt and frustration at myself for not having figured this out yet.

In my head, I do have good answers that keep me from getting too frustrated with myself over all of this: "just do the best you can," "a lot of this is outside your control," and so forth. But really, it is not actually okay with me that I do not know what to do, given the potential impacts of delay. I need to be getting out of this as fast as humanly possible. But just about every way to accelerate things would involve $5,000-$10,000 apiece, so I have to select what to outsource very, very carefully.

So, given this level of stress, overstretch, fear, unknowability, frustration, overwhelm, and potential for failure, how do you keep working? How do you think and focus when you are in this far over your head and you have all this background noise going on?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I focus on how I am going to feel at the end when I complete the long stressful process. By breaking it into smaller tasks, I can have multiple successes along the way to the big success.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2011

Massage. If you can get someone to do it for free, so much the better.
posted by Net Prophet at 9:08 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a meditative trick that I do to re-focus on... well, on how big the world is and how small I am. It doesn't get rid of the feeling - I'm still stressed - but it makes it possible to think and work and look at the situation as being small in the scheme of things ('this too shall pass' kind of thinking). People have different meditative techniques that they use, but I recommend trying a few of them. Even meditating ten minutes before bed can help you get in the habit of putting your feelings aside, which you can then draw on during the day.

The other thing that can help is a plan. What are you doing, in small chunks, what is your backup plan... and then when you make those mistakes in execution you have a backup ready. It sounds like you've been trying to do this, but I find that having it in writing helps a LOT for getting it off the top of my head.
posted by Lady Li at 9:21 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes making lists can help. A list of all the things (broken down into small chunks) that you need to do, so that no one chunk feels that intimidating. A list of the pros and cons of an option you're considering. Sometimes just writing things out can help bound the problem and focus your nervous energy on the things within your control.
posted by maxim0512 at 9:42 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding making lists. I recently dealt with a "hell project" like this and here's what I did:

I divided into subtasks whenever possible, made a list on paper with checkboxes. When i finished a part I checked the box. It felt really good to see checks filling the page! I also started with the parts I knew I knew how to do- even if it wasn't strictly the most logical order, I decided to gain some confidence before moving on to the really hard parts. That helped a lot. Once i saw one small bit working the way it should, my confidence skyrocketed and I was able to go on.

Also, I went outside and took a walk whenever I needed to, even if it was ten times a day. I didn't lose any more time than I would have sitting at my desk stressing out. And of course music. I played soothing songs on repeat, sometimes 10 or 12 times in a row.

Good luck- you can get through this!
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:08 AM on June 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've never been in such a stressful situation, so feel free to ignore my advice.

In the acute phase, bring your attention to your breath and then your body. Gradually identify muscles which are being clenched and unclench them. Try to become present and mindful. (Try a few minutes of actual meditation here and there if you can.)

In the longer term, imagine living through the worst-case scenario. You lose a hundred thousand dollars, are foreclosed on, and delay starting a family. Obviously anybody would prefer that this not happen to them, but on the other hand it's not the end of the world, either. If it happens, you'll experience more stress and various negative emotions, and then you'll get through it and come out on the other side. Then remember that this is the worst case and that it might not even get that bad.
posted by callmejay at 10:34 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My usual approach is to divide and conquer.

First divide your project in smaller stages ( by any criteria that you like, maybe difficulty, chronological order, etc). Then focus on one thing at a time, and that's it. Don't concentrate on how hard it is, how prepared or unprepared you are or anything. Simply focus on what you are doing in that very moment. When you are done, jump to the next thing.

also, if you see that stress is affecting you physically, maybe a a physicall strategy is what you need. Go run like hell around the block for five mintues every half an hour, then get back and keep working.

I wish you the best! Don't drown in details and the shoulds and the shouldn'ts. You are there, you're supposed to do it. Maybe you're not the best person for the job, but you are who they have, and that's all you can give them.
posted by Tarumba at 10:48 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, it sounds like you have a really tough row to hoe. You are showing great courage as you keep plugging away at it!

One of the most interesting effects of my meditation practice is that when I get the jolt of adrenaline and my heart starts banging and I get a sensation of coldness that prickles right to the top of my scalp, I immediately think, "Hey, wow, that's interesting, this crazy thing my body's doing!" This realization doesn't stop the stress or the stress reaction, but it puts a just enough distance between me and the stress that I can make smarter decisions. If it's appropriate to the situation I can go through the process of conscious relaxation callmejay described.

By practicing mindfulness in non-freakout situations (i.e. having a daily meditation practice) you make it habitual, and you don't have to consciously remember to do it when the heat is on. It happens automatically. You get knocked loose from the stress reaction just for a beat or two, which is immensely helpful.

You can explore meditation through beginner's class, and/or checking out Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham or Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. (The latter is widely available for free online.)

Over a few years, mindfulness meditation has decreased my overall stress levels greatly and helped me realize that the stuff I tend to freak out over is not, literally, life-and-death, although my physical reaction makes it feel that way. But even as you're just beginning the practice, you'll see the benefits.

Best of luck with your project, and with managing your stress.
posted by BrashTech at 1:00 PM on June 30, 2011

Um, how is your health otherwise?

I ask because waaay back in the day, I grew up in a turbulent household and I had a lot your symptoms off and on over the years. I conquered it, my life got happier, it was all good.

20 years later, just recently, I had surgery and was on bed rest feeling crap for 2 months - and wouldn't you know! All those symptoms came back whenever the slightest thing was a bit stressful. I was amazed.

During my recovery I did a lot of acupuncture and took the resting, and the special diet to enhance physical healing very very seriously. I started to realize that my body was physically depleted, and that's why all those emotional stress symptoms returned. It was weird. I totally couldn't control them with my mind, even though I knew it was intellectually irrational.

Take vitamins, exercise, see a holistic doctor (or even regular massage) if you are generally "healthy" but feeling "off" somehow.

Your physical well-being could be impacting your ability to cope emotionally.

That's my two cents.
posted by jbenben at 1:35 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I totally understand where you are coming from. I'm currently in the middle of doing something Financially Big and Scary, and my anxiety levels have been through the roof. Here's how i'm dealing:

First, i forgive myself when i just can't cope with it. I allow myself to be okay with not doing it, and i firmly tell myself (out loud!) that it's okay that i'm not doing it today, and i'm not going to worry about it.

When i feel ready, I set a timer for 20 minutes and i dig in, with the expectation that I only need to do it for 20 minutes, and surely i can cope with that. When the 20 minutes are over I can either take a break, or normally I just stay absorbed in what i'm doing and plough through. When i hit another trouble spot I allow myself to take a break, then set the timer again for just 20 minutes.

For me, the biggest step was to stop punishing myself for not having done it already. It's counterproductive, and it just makes me feel awful. Once I learned to actually give up on the self-flaggelation (and there is a difference between this and procrastination - for me procrastination still has the anxiety attached), I found that I could focus much better.

Good luck and well done to you!
posted by ukdanae at 2:36 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have dealt with a lot of stressers and personal anxiety issues, especially over the last couple of years.

One little thing that I came up with myself-- something that is deceptively simple-- has helped me in key moments:

Relax your temples.

Even when I'm not stressed, I find that, by default, I draw the sides of my head backwards-- as if trying to cinch glasses up the bridge of my nose-- when I am stressed, doubly so. An exercise that I do whenever I think of it is to relax the hell out of that area and feel my sliding forward into a resting position, into a layer of serenity to cool the flare-up of stress.

When you feel your temples relaxing, give it a few seconds. Usually your attention will wander (as mine has with these following words), and they will have tightened back again.. release them again. It feels like a miracle.

I hope I'm not just a freak talking about something that doesn't apply to you there.

Also, deep breathing is vastly underrated and underpracticed-- it isn't just a silly pointless cliche-- it's actually a good part of the reason why smokers have trouble quitting: the deep breathing that goes with smoking-- independent of smoking itself-- is very therapeutic.

Lastly, as I've mentioned in other AskMe's, I can't recommend herb tea highly enough.
Herbs known for relieving stress: Motherwort, Mugwort, Kava, Vervain, Skullcap, Hops, Valerian, and Damania. So so so so good for stress.

And the temple-relaxing thing is important and effective enough for me to mention twice, especially since your question seems to focus on times when you're in the thick of the strussful situation-- it's an release of kinks to bloodflow, and it's invaluable.

You're worth it; good luck and good vibes to you.
posted by herbplarfegan at 4:32 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

oh, please read up on herbs -- potential allergies, combinations, eg kava isn't to be combined with alcohol-- stuff like that. IANAD. but I swear by the temple-tension release.
posted by herbplarfegan at 4:58 PM on June 30, 2011

One key thing if you're like me is to "reset." I'll get frozen in stress mode, and even after the deadline is over, I'll still remain stuck in the stress. I have to do something that really convinces my body the stress is over, like sit in the hot tub or look at the ocean.
posted by salvia at 12:38 AM on July 1, 2011

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