Help me keep my focus for at least the next 8 days
May 24, 2012 12:53 AM   Subscribe

So much is going wrong, I'm having a hell of a time coping. Huge deadline looming and I need help coping/repressing all this stress for at least a week.

So, this last year has been one hell of an emotional roller coaster for me and I think tonight I received the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. In the last ten months I've: had to euthanize my two horses; found out my dad has cancer (operated on and in remission); found out my dog has cancer (untreatable, he's at the end of his days and hanging on by a thread); interviewed for and received an offer for my dream job once my degree is finished this summer; spent way more time fighting with my wife than is healthy; and have bitten off an overly ambitious course load for the summer to finish my degree by September instead of April. Tonight, I found out that my mother is going in for triple bypass heart surgery sometime in the next week or two... I wouldn't consider her a good candidate for surgery as she's not very fit (but not really obese either) and has a lot of peripheral issues. She seems young for this at 65 but what do I know...

Anyways, I managed to bury myself in work for most of today to avoid dealing with this latest bit of news, but now I'm sitting here unable to sleep and starting to just freak out a little. I have an important final next wednesday and an obscene amount of work to get through before that... it's an incredibly challenging course so taking any real time for myself is going to be incredibly difficult if not impossible. Up till now I've managed to just put off dealing with a lot of this stuff by being busy, I've felt a little down and out for the last couple of months but now it's just become overwhelming.

I'd really appreciate any tips and hints to help me push this growing panic back down and maintain my focus. I can already hear the shouts of "THERAPY" but I don't think I can afford it. The school offers therapists for free when schools in, but nothing through the summer. I need free and (relatively) easy strategies to help me push this onto a backburner until next thursday at a minimum, but preferably something to help me get through the summer until I have income flowing again in the fall. I know that it's probably wishful thinking, nothing can be free and easy but that's all I can afford in both time and money.

I think the saving grace of the sheer amount of work I have to do is that I'm terrified to do something really destructive like drink myself into oblivion because I don't think I can afford the time to be hungover.
posted by Beacon Inbound to Human Relations (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My first piece of advice is this: Deal with the things that you actually have control your coursework. Try to put your energy towards that and not towards things you can't control like your dog's health and your mom's surgery. Yes, you will think about those things. Just remember that you have no control over the outcome and that your energy is put to better use on YOUR future right now.

Secondly, are you actually depressed? Is there a school health center that is open for the sake of possibly getting a prescription for an anti-depressant? All of the stress you are under right now is likely short term and I'm imagining that the best case scenario is that any depression/anxiety/stress you are under is short term and it may be a situation where a prescription may be enough to get your through the coming months. Even if you get a prescription for a weeny dose of ativan it might be enough to make you feel like you've got a tiiny amount of breathing room which can make all the damn difference.

Thirdly, I am so sorry about your horses, dog, mom and wife-fighting.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 1:06 AM on May 24, 2012

Agreeing with fluffy, that in the short term trying to focus on those things whose outcome you have control over is your best bet. That and breathing. Seriously. When you start to think "TOO MUCH!"...stop. Breath in, making sure your belly moves with the breath. Breath out, pushing the air out with your belly and counting "1". In and then "2" on the next out breath. Do it slowly for 5 counts, or 3 if that's all you can manage. Focus on the out breath. It will help.

And without knowing anything about your marriage, your wife could be your biggest help right now. She knows you, she cares. Does she know what you've put in your post? Ask her, not us. Or at least, in addition to us.
posted by kestralwing at 1:34 AM on May 24, 2012

That's a lot of stressors, no wonder that this is overwhelming. In addition to focusing on dealing with the things you actually have control over as mentioned by fluffy battle kitten, it might help to reduce the scope also in time. Can you muddle through until next Thursday? This might be easier if you schedule worry time for next Friday or Saturday. Then you can tell yourself that you will deal with stuff that is not your course then. If need be, you can also schedule half an hour every evening at, say, 7.30, for breathing, thinking about all these issues and worry or try to solve problems. Every time during the day when a worrying thought pops into your head, defer it to this evening worry office hour. This way the concerns are sure to get attention (and thus might let up on poking you all the time), but it's on your terms and with full attention, not background worry.
posted by meijusa at 1:34 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a few exercises that may help:

1) Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two sections horizontally, and two sections vertically. Label the vertical axis "control", with the ends being "high" and "low", and then label the horizontal axis "impact" with ends being "positive" and "negative". Map out your recent experiences.

Those which are in the High Control, Positive Impact (degree) are labeled as "Enhance", those which are in the Low Control, Positive Impact (dream job) are labeled as "Enjoy", those which are in the High Control, Negative Impact (fighting with wife) are labeled as "Manage", and those which are in the Low Control, Negative Impact (parent's health) are labeled as "Endure".

This will give you a landscape of 1) what you need to actively contribute your (limited) energy toward (High Control) and 2) what you need to be aware of, and engage with to a lesser degree (Low Control).

This is the beginning of 2) setting boundaries. Using the landscape tool, you can delineate what your tasks are, what their impacts are, and how much time you allocate to each. As hard as it is, you need to limit the amount of time you spend on Low Control, Negative Impact quadrant, for the time you spend there is time that you are not spending producing positive outcomes for yourself.

2) Boundaries

Make a list of what is important to you, in numerical order. When we're extremely busy, we often lose sight of the fact that a choice to do one thing is a choice not to do another – and that is more than OK, that is necessary.

On this list are things like finishing school work, relationship with spouse, taking care of parents, mourning the past.

The list can be as long as you would like it to be. You can edit and shape it until you're comfortable with the result. Once you see the order of your values you can structure your time accordingly. If your school work is more important that a harmonious relationship with your spouse, then you understand that this rough patch is necessary to get to the next phase. If a harmonious relationship with your spouse is more important than school work, then you will close the books at a certain time, and go off with them for a bit.

It's all relatively, but right now, it sounds that you are overwhelmed and it's hard to know where your priorities are, as many of these things are emotional matters. Listing your priorities in order will help, as you will have a sense of what to do when there are conflicting demands made on your time. This is not static, rather it is something you can do repeatedly over months and evolve. In essence, it's being honest with yourself about what you want, and how you need to spend your time. Also, it's a good exercise in knowing what to let go of.

3) Take time to yourself, each day. It can be twenty minutes, it can be an hour. Walking alone is good. Time at the pub is good. And that is not wasted time or indulgent. That is necessary time to de-stress. Imagine your ability to deal with stress is like a bucket with a small drain in the bottom. It does not have an endless capacity. At some point, it will fill up and start spilling over the sides. Every now and then, you must stop filling it for a while and let the level go down a bit. There is no selfishness in taking time to yourself, nor is there selflessness in running yourself into the ground.
posted by nickrussell at 1:35 AM on May 24, 2012 [21 favorites]

Sorry that you are going through all of this. It seems like a lot for one person to handle especially during such a short period of time.

Many of these things are not in your control. You cannot directly change or get rid of your dad's cancer, dog's cancer, and mother's need for surgery. You cannot change what happened to your horses.

What you can change is how you respond to these different situations.

Spend extra time with your mom, dad, and dog. Call if you can't visit. You will need a support system in order to get through these times.

Figure out if there's a mental health helpline in your area. We have these lines in Canada and they are free and anonymous to use. They are very helpful when you can't afford therapy, don't have that option, or need help right now.

Create deadlines for school, but don't try to get too far ahead of yourself academically speaking. If you choose not to take any breaks or a few days off then you're going to burn out if you haven't already. Try not to focus on the dream job in terms of an added stress in your life, but instead, a reward for all of the hard work that you'll have to put into your courses in order to be a part of that company and have that job later on.

I know this is all easier said than done, but nick's advice above will help you out tremendously during these next few weeks and then some.
posted by livinglearning at 1:41 AM on May 24, 2012

Get some exercise. Walking is good. This will help with the physical aspects of the stress.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:40 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there someone who can help you make a study schedule for the next week? (You sound extremely capable, but especially under stress, it might be good to have an out-loud conversation to set realistic goals.) Break the work into manageable chunks and be as unambitious in scheduling as you can – if you want to do another chunk at the end of the day, great, then you're ahead and can allow extra time for another pass or for family time if you need it. Breaks for fresh air, exercise or phone calls in between the chunks, and don't skimp on sleep.

I'm very sorry you're under so much stress. Be as organised as you can about the finals so that it's a series of things to do and not just another cause of worry, and it might help to make the next week manageable.
posted by carbide at 5:16 AM on May 24, 2012

Just a possibility, but would it help at all to reschedule your final exam after your mother's had the surgery and is out of the woods? It sounds like you've been dealing with a lot, so with some documentation you might be able to get some concessions from your uni to spread out your coursework. And by what you're describing, a few days could make a huge difference.
posted by quercus23 at 5:31 AM on May 24, 2012

Best answer: In my experience, burying the stress leads to exactly what you are experiencing. When the distractions are gone, it pops out and says "HAY WHY WERE YOU IGNORING ME!!?"

I find that St. Alia's advice works for this. Go for a long walk or run or something, and use that time to process your stress and emotions. (If just going out and running/walking for no reason is hard to do, make it into a task, like going down to the store for a candy bar or something.) Just let your mind wander, and exhaust yourself. Get mad/sad/afraid/whatever, and then when you are done, take a shower or nap to cool down. Instead of crushing the bad feelings, you will have burnt them off.

I agree with breaking tasks down into chunks. The optimum size depends on you, your stress level and your workload. Sometimes, you can maintain an entire project in your memory and make progress just by ticking things off in your internal to-do list. But when you are busy/stressed, you have too much to remember, and a lower capacity to remember it. Break it into chunks so that when you are done with each chunk, you can actually be "done" with that something and get a sense of accomplishment.

For the medical things, try to find the good in them. (Hard to do with some things, I know.) But like your mom's surgery, frame it as "she is getting fixed up and will come out the other end healthier" rather than "mom is sick and this sucks". I've known a lot of people getting bypasses at that age or younger, and they always came out better. Instead of looking at the surgery as a bad thing, look at it as a good thing: not getting the surgery is a death sentence, and getting it is a very good chance at improving their quality of life.
posted by gjc at 6:22 AM on May 24, 2012

A corollary to gjc's second point: Make lists. Write everything down. All the smallest and biggest things you need to do in a day. Start off your day with the most difficult one first. Cross off the points as you finish them off. At the end of the day, look at your lists and go through all that you accomplished. That last part is bound to feel good and some motivation levels up.
posted by xm at 4:39 PM on May 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, I really appreciate the comments

Implementing an hour long 20k daily bike ride as a starter for some stress crushing and "me" time. Felt great to get out for that today even if I did feel a little guilty for turning the work off!

I was a little skeptical about the lists and the impact/control matrix but you know, just seeing things written out seems to help put/keep things in a little better perspective and refocus me on the tasks I can control.

And without knowing anything about your marriage, your wife could be your biggest help right now. She knows you, she cares. Does she know what you've put in your post? Ask her, not us. Or at least, in addition to us.

She does know what I'm going through, trouble is she's not really good at being supportive and I'm not really good at spelling out what I need. She means well, but I've always been the rock solid emotionally stable one in the marraige.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 11:46 PM on May 24, 2012

Another thing to think about, especially in a crisis: identify the 20% of the core of your work that will get you through to your goal, and then do this bit first. This is the part that is essential to getting you closer to the goal rather than just being important.

This will automatically do two things:
(1) Help you focus on the core of the bulk that is essential to getting to the goal.
(2) Prioritize your tasks in order of importance and urgency (essential) first before those tasks that are important
posted by xm at 10:35 AM on May 25, 2012

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