Q: Sometimes I am overwhelmed with things in my life and I don’t even know how to begin to feel better. I get so immobilized, I do nothing - and that makes it worse. What should I do?
A: To cope with the various factors contributing to an overload, we shut down. This is a natural response that helps us cope with major or even minor stressors in our life. Short term, it can be helpful, but in the long run this can lead to depression, isolation, increased anxiety and feeling hopeless and helpless. When this occurs, I encourage my clients to get “back to basics,” which includes getting adequate sleep, good nutrition, exercise, sunshine, social contact and mental distraction.
- Sleep. Research seems to indicate that we typically need eight hours of sleep per night (more for children and teens and less for older adults). Sleep is imperative to maintaining good health but is often not seen as a priority. Sleep is a symptom in nearly every mental health disorder, which underscores the interaction between sleep and mental health issues. Good sleep hygiene such as maintaining a regular sleep pattern, sleeping in a cool, dark room with little distractions, good exercise and limited caffeine and alcohol intake can help us get restorative sleep.
- Nutrition. What we eat can also affect our moods. We all know a hungry child can be inconsolable unless he eats. For that child, eating is his sole priority. Adults also can experience feeling irritable but have learned to cover up our distress, yet our bodies still need healthy food. If you don’t feel like eating when you are overwhelmed, think small and more frequent meals or snacks. If you overeat, try some of the activities suggested below such as walking, getting sunshine, doing an activity or seeing a friend.
- Exercise. We all know the benefits of exercise but when we are feeling overwhelmed, it may be hard to place exercise on our “to do” list. Exercise may be the single best antidote to depression and anxiety. Even a short walk at lunch can be physically and emotionally beneficial. Don’t worry about how much, just get moving.
- Sunshine. No matter what time of year, our bodies crave the sunshine. UV rays in appropriate doses enable our bodies to create chemicals known for improving our mood. Even the cloudiest days produce more UV rays than the brightest room. In addition, research about the use of light boxes has indicated that use of these devices can improve mood. Be careful, because knowing when to use the box and how much time to sit in front of it is imperative.
- Social contact. Even though you might not feel like going out with friends and family, even small amounts of social contact can be helpful. Let a friend know that you aren’t feeling well but still need to get out of the house or have a short visit. This enables us to feel less isolated. Not sure who to call? Consider volunteering, which has also been shown to be beneficial for those who are depressed. Even sitting at a coffee shop or going for a walk in a park can help us reconnect with others.
- Mental distraction. It is easy to sit and ruminate when we are stressed, sad or anxious, but this only reinforces our moods. Try an activity that gets your logical brain working such as a puzzle, organizing a drawer, baking or making something. Try an activity that has been helpful in the past but do it for the sake of the process, not the result.
Feeling overwhelmed by this list? Try just one item for a week and see how it goes.You can also create a schedule of your day that incorporates some of the activities. Tell a “buddy” what you are trying to do and create concrete ways she can support you in your efforts. She may benefit too!
Based on the book The Depression Cure by Steve Ilardi