The world can be overwhelming. Period!
Each of us has a can only take so much pressure or stimulation. We each have a mental “glass-ceiling”.
This limit was recognised over 100 years ago by US psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodgson. Their model followed a classic bell curve. In plotting performance against arousal they showed that whilst performance does indeed increase with increases in arousal, there is a point at which the increase stops. Performance quickly diminishes thereafter as we become overwhelmed by excessive and often unresolvable demand.
Person to person the line on the graph might plot the same, but the scale is unique. Quite simply, my capacity to steer myself through the demands of life can be significantly different from yours.
Overwhelmed and immobilised
Each of us is the product of infinite influence. A myriad of minute experiences through our lives, quietly shaped by our interactions and experience. Often these are punctuated by bigger more visable, and memorable events. Each moment of every day we (generally unconsciously) practice our responses to external stimuli. Getting subtly better each time, like the concert pianist preparing their recital until the perfection of their performance is habitual.
In uncertain times, we all have to work harder to be ourselves. In challenging times, it is harder to engage the reflective and rational. Under stress our cognition is compromised. Our habits and heuristics thereafter assume the director’s role in the movies of our lives. This includes our directing emotional reactions.
In uncertain times it is easy to become overwhelmed. We are so busy trying to survive in those moments that the parts of us which might otherwise engage objective or balanced reflection is disengaged. Everything becomes a challenge. Even the mundane proves impossible.
One moment at a time
Meaningful change is tough for most of us at the best of time. Under challenge, when we are lost in unconscious survival loops, what hope is there? What chance to reflect or to adapt?
We need to redefine the playing field. Professional and life-coaches often talk about achievable goals. What can we do in that moment? Sometime we must let-go of the long-term, forget the big plans. Quality of life is not about grandiose schemes of betterment or ambition, it is about the now.
We need to set ourselves up for success. And that might mean no more than what can I do right now? These can be simple but necessary tasks, clean our teeth, plant some seeds in the garden, get the laundry done etc.
Little micro achievements. One moment at a time. One thing at a time. Maybe not world changing, but often potentially life changing as we realise we can take back control.
Lastly, we need feedback. Our brain needs to know that it has done the right thing. Positive feedback provides the reward from which it learns, subtly strengthening some new neural pathway.
Celebrate the achievement. It might not seem worth a ticker-tape parade, but that is your judgement talking. When the alternative is being trapped in inaction, simply getting dressed is a powerful personal achievement.
So be kind. Be fair. Make it manageable. What can I do now? This hour? This morning? When we acknowledge the limits to our achievement for a given moment, we can frame success. In the next moment we can prepare for the next. Moment we moment we move forward, baby step by baby step.
The venerable Lao Tzu is often quoted: “A journey of a thousand miles with a single step.” We have to take that single step. And then we can take the next. How much more manageable is that journey when it is no more than a chain of achievable single steps. How much more manageable is life when we realise that we can change how we react, when we realise that we can choose our response. In the moment we can find manageable actions that help us reframe demand and so reshape our subsequent behaviour.