Staying calm in chaos
October 2, 2019 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I am seeking fresh ideas to stay calm in chaos. The chaos could be visual clutter at a friend's house or an overwhelming deluge of work tasks, bids for attention or decisions at work, or staying centered around children doing art and getting tiny bits of paper everywhere. More inside.

This question is inspired by one of those work days where you have too much to do in the time allotted, too many people needing to see you, and you can't stay late to get caught up for reasons. And also being close with someone that is neurodiverse, it creates a great deal of chaos and unpredictability.

I do yoga and I meditate, and even get to do both of these things at work. I use calming aromatherapy. I use mindful breathing. When acutely terrible I use short acting anxiety medication but don't want to do that unless I have to, and I don't tolerate any of the daily anxiety medications well. I'm in therapy. I'm simplifying life where I can.

But still in spite of all this self care my nervous system goes into hyperarousal. I can feel myself tensing up and feeling pressured and stressed especially when pulled in a lot of directions. I've gotten more responsibilities in the recent past and my nervous system isn't sure how to keep me calm when there's no breathing room in my day.

I have to find out how to make my body stop activating the stress response because it is worsening some of my health problems. What else can I do?
posted by crunchy potato to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I think of this paragraph by Anne Lamont: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

It always calms me down. And then I just go bird by bird, like a horse with blinders on (not to mix metaphors).
posted by sallybrown at 12:05 PM on October 2, 2019 [17 favorites]

What else can I do?

When I feel myself getting stressed at work and maybe feel like I'm not ready to respond as my best self, I try to sort of step outside myself and think about how I want to respond and react and approach things. Whether that's a frustrating situation, too much to do, or other chaos.

Too much to do? Triage and do the things that are important, time-bound, and going to matter in a week whether they were done or not.

Too many people need to see me? Triage, meet with the people that really need my attention, push the other folks off until later and with honesty. "Look, seven people want to talk to me today, I can handle four. Sorry, but four other people asked first. Can we do [whatever time is reasonable] instead?"

Pulled in too many directions? Pick a direction, and don't let yourself be pulled away from it until you're ready.

Got a manager asking for too many things? Push to them to prioritize. Calmly, nicely, firmly "you've asked me to do six things that take 90 minutes each in the space of seven hours. Can't do it. Which ones matter the most?"

The other thing I do is realize that my work environment can go chaotic and try to be as organized as possible ahead of time so that when chaos muppets show up, I can deal.

So - when you feel like your body is activating stress response, take a moment to recognize it and tell yourself "I'm not really in danger, I can handle this situation, let me sort out the best way to do that" and then when there are times you aren't stressed, think about what you can do to prevent stress if at all possible.
posted by jzb at 12:25 PM on October 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

sometimes it helps to write out a list. (by hand, for some reason. on paper.) It doesn't take more than a minute or two to write out all the to-dos.

Then the order of operations:

1. I can see which of them are easy low hanging fruit and I take care of those right away.
2. Then the ones that depend on someone else's input before I can do anything, I mark those as "waiting"
3. Then I can see the big remaining ones, and if there's low hanging fruit there (like "write outline" for a big doc) then I can start on that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:30 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have only read the Kindle sample of this book so far (I have it on order) but even that part and the underlying premise addresses your question exactly. If I remember correctly, she wrote that problem is not necessarily that the stress response gets activated but that in our modern life, it rarely gets completed, and that's the part that prevents us from fully recovering. I highly recommend checking it out.
posted by anderjen at 12:36 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

WORK: Can you outsource any of these tasks? I've used virtual assistants in the past to great effect. Or sometimes just offloading simple admin work to friends who need a bit of extra cash. Yes it's unfair if your work wont hire enough staff, but sometimes throwing money at a problem can help in a short-term crisis. If you arent able to do this *meet with your boss* and get a reasonable weekly task list. Reasonable is the key word. Be honest about project timeframes. Actually, pad your timeframes by 25%. You'll need it somewhere.

Try to push in person interactions to video chats where possible. For some reason my meetings go faster over video chats. But in either case I also insist on time-appropriate agendas (even if i have to write them) and stick to them like glue. Other things that come up get noted and put on the agenda for a future meeting. No exceptions unless it's an emergency. Also "lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part" is a good mantra to repeat to yourself.

NOT WORK: I get you on visual clutter. And kids making messes. But at your friends house? Remind yourself how nice it is to go home to your own space and focus intentionally on the conversation or whatever you're doing with your friend(s). You know the calming breath drill, so do that.

As far as kids make messes. Teaching them to clean after is part of the deal. You like cleanliness, so hopefully cleaning things makes you happy. If so, try to show kids how tidying up can be rewarding. Montessori and Waldorf both have resources around getting kids involved in cleanup in age-appropriate ways.

Also if kids and art stresses you out...maybe spend more time doing things like nature walks that dont involve at-home mess. Let them make sand drawings in the yard or build leaf castles. No paper bits!
posted by ananci at 1:42 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have a few suggestions:

Weekly 1:1 meetings with your supervisor, and all reports that you have. Be clear about what assignments are progressing at expected pace and are on track for completion, which tasks are at risk of falling behind, and which tasks cannot be completed as expected. Get and give early guidance about what is actually urgent and the level of quality of completion. Cs get degrees so it is unlikely that every task needs to be knocked out of the park.

Next, keep track of what Covey called the Eisenhower Square. Place things in quadrants according to their importance (high or low) and their urgency (high or low). Things that are high importance /high urgency are crises that must be managed. High importance/low urgency need your effort. Low importance/high urgency don’t warrant your attention but of course feel terrible. Low importance/low urgency tasks can be shuffled away.

Also, get or brush up on DBT skills. The distress tolerance module in particular, but the mindfulness, interpersonal, and emotion regulation modules are also helpful.

Distress tolerance skills help you center your breathing, choose self soothing tools, and pre-plan responses to stressors you expect to encounter.

Mindfulness helps you remind yourself what is actually happening, in contrast to what you are interpreting and/or anticipating. This module also helps you slow down.

The interpersonal skills give you templates for asking for help, saying no, repeating yourself or trying a new tactic. It also is good for remembering that how others feel about you doesn’t always need to be your top priority, and in some situations you will decide that it is your highest goal for that I redaction. These skills give you the skills to choose and reflect.

Emotion regulation can help you return to a baseline state after or even during a super stressful event or day. This isn’t about just telling yourself to feel better.
posted by bilabial at 1:47 PM on October 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

I've gotten more responsibilities in the recent past and my nervous system isn't sure how to keep me calm when there's no breathing room in my day.

Even using every stress handling trick in the book (and it sounds like you’ve been reading the book) there is a limit to what a nervous system can do. Given all the stress management you already do I would guess that you’re near or at that limit for yourself. This may be a matter of swapping things around to regain the breathing room you need.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:05 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Come to think of it, I think you'd find Unfuck Your Brain very helpful.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:15 PM on October 2, 2019

I have repeatedly cleaned my house to minimalist functionality. Then my kids exist. One in particular just explodes chaos at this point. I hate visual clutter. So my response is to narrow my field of vision. I keep my laptop desktop and folders organised and tidy. I keep my workbag organised. I have a notebook no one is allowed to touch but me for notes. I can clear the table in a broad empty stretch by shifting their mess in a pile out of sight to one end, and work on the clear end.

I think kids should make a mess AND clean up - but if the mess stage is stressful, can you hand off to another parenting adult? Do you have to participate or just distantly supervise? Children's craft process can be stressful for some adults and that stress communicates to the kids and makes the whole thing less fun for both, and it's ok to say hey, this isn't our parent-child bonding activity. Let someone else do the messy glue and paint stuff. I am the crafty aunty to some kids whose awesome parents hate mess and it's a good arrangement all round.

I have generalised anxiety and when I get overwhelmed, I write lists. I use a yellow 3x4" lined sticky note list which I keep stacks of around the place and in my bags. I write a list then go back and number them by priority and then just follow the list and it feels easier somehow. Sometimes the list is eat breakfast, read newspaper, feed cats, shower, write next to do list. That's fine.

I also use a stupid app to chill. The app changes - it has been bejeweled, Tetris, sudoku, 2048, now Open Flood - but the aim is something low stakes and soothing repetitive to give me a few rounds to mentally escape. It's important they have a quick end, no candy crush endlessness. Really helps with stress.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:42 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also if you are home, grabbing a quick shower is like instant reset for your whole stress mood.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:45 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

My husband has this, which is a challenge sometimes because I do the opposite mostly--I multi-task, and I like a terrain I can see, which means if I am in project mode it's all over the place physically.

I really don't think it's you or anything that you can do anything about.

Here's what we do on a physical/practical level to not strangle each other:

-Bins (being able to unload a shit ton of crap into a basket and set it aside for even a short period of time is super helpful. Just one basket without any taxonomy. Especially good w/kids.

-Hiding (when I rearrange furniture, that dude is nowhere near the house)

-Physical removal to different room (hides in bedroom)

-For what it's worth, I have never been as productive or work-focused as I am in a car dealership waiting for maintenance. It is so sterile and boring. Even as a person who sometimes needs to 'see everything', stripping out anything interesting can be helpful. So maybe look for boring-ass places to get work done that dovetail with crap you have to do anyway, like get an oil change, or wait at the DMV. Maybe something you've been putting off.

Hope this helps. People's brains operate differently. My husband's is very linear, very clean. Mine is like a scribble, especially on high-level projects, but *I* see how it works.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:53 PM on October 2, 2019

I have to find out how to make my body stop activating the stress response because it is worsening some of my health problems.

Accepting yourself and understanding 'this is how you are' helps you get further down the line toward 'I need this because this is how I work best' (noise cancelling headphones, one single perfectly clean table, a change of scene, more frequent breaks, a very large white board, a Post-It note based to-do system....things that are your own.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:00 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I recommend the 21 days of calming anxiety series inside the calm app (for android or iphone). Even though I know the general principles of mindfulness and being in the moment, this series has really helped me put it into practice and stay in the moment, observing stressful events that occur without reacting to them.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 5:40 PM on October 2, 2019

Physical touch!!!!
posted by rglass at 6:23 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe this question and answers would be of use - perhaps you'd benefit from having less noise (of all kinds) in your life in general, so you'd be calmer as a starting point?
posted by gakiko at 12:34 AM on October 3, 2019

My boss has commented many times on how I am unflappable and super calm even when things are frighteningly hectic for our team. The two things I do have been mentioned in this thread:

1. I make a list.
(I start every day with a to-do list, but sometimes after a meeting or important call, I now have 3 or 4 really urgent things to worry about. No matter how busy things are, I take 5 minutes to jot down everything, and then I re-prioritize. Things from my 'normal' list might get pushed way down, but that's okay (more on that later). I also make sure my list is always actionable - I break things down into smaller, more manageable tasks.)

2. Once I have a list, I go bird by bird.

I think the thing that helps me to be very rarely flustered is that no matter how busy things get, no matter how chaotic the environment around me, no matter how stressful things may seem, I know that as long as I am actively working on one thing (or more) right now, I'm doing all I can. If I ever look at my list and feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I just remind myself, I'm working. I can't do it all at once, I can't do more than I'm doing, and I might not be able to finish it all before I have to leave, but I'm working. I truly think this mindset makes me even more productive because I feel very calm and level, so I spend more time working than worrying and feeling frantic.
posted by gursky at 5:46 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I've been meditating twice daily with Headspace, and it's greatly improved my ability to stay calm in chaos. Even my boss noticed. I've started to be able to do the "noting" practice in real life, where I go "ok, you're feeling anxious" and I'm able to acknowledge the feeling and move on from it.
posted by radioamy at 3:40 PM on October 3, 2019

Could be sensory overload.

- Are your clothing fabrics noticeable? Lots of people don't think of this, but it can have a huge impact.
- Can you reduce the noise you experience? Earplugs, noise-blocking earbuds, reduce the time spent listening to things. This can also have a big impact.
- Have one place in your home & office where you can sit comfortably and look at an empty wall. Sounds super boring! But can be very helpful for backing off from overload.

Other suggestions:
- Are there predictable triggers? If there are, can you schedule time afterward to wind down, and get through the stressor until your sacrosanct No-More-Of-This-Nonsense time?

- You do yoga & etc, but are these actually relaxing for you? Or are you doing them because people suggest them when someone is stressed? Does meditation actually calm you, or is it just another thing for you to do?

- Do you have emergency coping strategies you can apply when you notice your nervous system going on high alert? Ex: If I notice I'm starting to get nervous or upset, I try to:
- eat a amount of something fatty and sugary. Like, a single piece of dark chocolate, or a few nuts and dried fruit.
- take a single, deep breath and tell my self I'm OK, deliberately relax my shoulders
- take 5 seconds to think of something really nice in the past 24 hours and how happy it made me

All of these are aimed at directly signaling 'We're OK! We're fed and safe!' to my hindbrain. It's definitely not foolproof, but it can really help. Also, heading panic off at the pass means I'm less likely to stress eat all the things after the stressor has passed.

Needing time to deal with stress is universal, even if the stressors vary. It's OK to make your life work for you, an individual person with individual needs, even if not everyone would need to have quiet time after dealing with X trigger. If people are consistently demanding too much of you, than you are really not the problem here. Breathing room is a universal need. You need it too.
posted by Ahniya at 3:53 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

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