5 Ways to Find Your Center When Life Feels Overwhelming

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” ~Hermann Hesse

We’ve all had moments when life’s demands left us feeling stressed and scattered. In these moments, it’s helpful to have some simple tools to help us gain composure and come back to our center.

Let me paint a picture for you of a scene from my daily life at its most overwhelming.

On a recent Tuesday, I drafted my evening’s “to-do” list, which contained the following items: Go clothes shopping for my son, get groceries, cook up some dog food, cook dinner, give my son a bath, put laundry away, walk the dog, and prepare for a workshop that I was to present that weekend.

Like most working parents, I have to fit a lot of tasks into a brief period of time on weeknight evenings.

Clearly all of those items weren’t going to get accomplished. But I felt compelled to try.

And then, mid-afternoon, a feeling of illness began to creep over me, starting with a headache and progressing into nausea and profound fatigue. By the time I got home, I had revised my list, and whittled it down to: Bathe my son.

I felt incapable of anything else.

Still, even with a truncated list, my evening became chaotic very quickly. Our newly-acquired dog was dripping blood all over the house, including the white slipcover. She was not sick—she was in heat.

As I tried to attend to the mess, my son called to me from the kitchen. He held his cupped hand out to me, and proudly exclaimed, “I caught it so it wouldn’t fall on the kitchen floor!”

I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about what his hand held, but I’ll give you a hint: He’s potty training.

In the mean time, my head was throbbing, my stomach was retching, dishes from the previous day were piled up in the sink, laundry from the week sat haphazardly on my bedroom chair, and the workshop I was to present in four days had not been planned or prepared for. Not to mention, I had a hungry child and dog to attend to.

Sometimes, when external factors like these seem overwhelming, we feel unable to remove ourselves from the situation long enough to gain perspective and compose ourselves in order to move forward.

Very often, these external factors become internalized, and our minds start reeling. “I’ll never get it all done, my life is spiraling out of control, I can’t get myself together…” The internal loop can be loud, persistent, and ultimately paralyzing. And once it begins, it is hard to stop.

On this night, I felt so overwhelmed that I thought I would either cry or pass out. The only coping mechanism that came to mind was, “Sleep!” Given my sickness, this was probably quite appropriate. But I had things to do—real-life obligations that I could not avoid.

So what do you do in those moments when life must go on? What about the times you can’t defer your duties in favor of your bed?

I can tell you what I do.

For me, the key to feeling grounded is mind-body integration. And while a yoga class might be helpful toward this end, it’s hardly feasible in those everyday moments when life feels overwhelming.

I need simple, applicable strategies to help me feel centered.

Over years of working as a mental health professional and practicing these strategies for myself, I have found a handful of mind-body techniques that are really useful to employ when you’re having “one of those days.” Implement them during times of stress to help you find your center.

1. Three-Count Breath.

One way to help the body relax and restore its basic functioning is to steady your breath. Start in this way: Inhale for three counts. Hold for three counts. Exhale for three counts. After a few rounds of that, attempt to prolong the counts so that your breathing can slow and return to normal. This process can be helpful in less than a minute.

2. Stop Sign Visualization.

Those negative, looping thoughts that are spiraling out of control in your mind? They don’t serve you. There’s no time to listen to them, anyway: You have very important things to do!

So, to move forward without letting your thoughts drag you down, try this: For each self-defeating thought that pops up (“I’ll never get it all done!” and so on), visualize a large, red stop sign in your mind and think, “Stop.”

Try to drop the rest of the thought. This takes practice, because those thoughts have a lot of “psychic inertia” and that’s why they need a “Stop Sign.” Use it liberally. 

3. Mantra/Affirmation.

Used alone or in conjunction with the Stop Sign Visualization, a simple mantra can be an effective tool.

Consider a few affirming phrases to repeat during these moments. It should be something that rings true to you and can reassure you. For example, “I can manage,” “This will pass,” “There is no emergency,” or “It will all get done.” Experiment with the right mantra for yourself, and repeat it often. 

4. “5-5-5” 

This technique is often recommended for people in dissociative episodes, but is useful and applicable during times of everyday stress as well. The purpose is to generate an awareness of your sensory experience so that you can feel more grounded in your body.

It’s very simple. Name the things you are experiencing for each of the senses: Identify five things you can see, five things you can feel, five things you can hear, and five things you can smell. For taste, a sip of cold water is often enough to bring awareness to the body.

5. Core Rooting.

Take a moment to stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Visualize your body as a tree, with your torso representing the trunk and your feet representing the roots. Focus your attention on your core and scan down your legs until you reach your feet.

Notice the ground beneath your feet. Feel the strength of your body. You are not “scattered” anymore; you are right here.

When you are able to center yourself in times of distress, you will find that you work more efficiently, relate to others more easily, and feel an improvement in your physical health. Each of the above techniques can be employed anywhere and any time, in just a minute or two.

Experiment with one or all and see what feels right for you.

Life can get hectic, but these simple tools can bring you back to center so that you can enjoy it.

Photo by Lululemon Athletica

About Angela Marchesani

Angela Marchesani is a psychotherapist and Holistic Health Coach practicing in Wayne, Pennslyvania. Visit her at angeladora.org.

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