Mental toolkit for overwhelming times


As I’ve said before, much of brain-retraining has to do with speaking to the primitive parts of the brain in ways it can’t ignore.

Being overwhelmed is very common these days. So, this tool is helpful for far more than just  my fellow painiacs. I originally laid this out for someone else dealing with very different issues, and realized as I did so that it was a darn good tool and I’d have to remember it for myself. It has already been a help to me, so I hope it helps others as well.

The State of Overwhelm

I can tell when I’m in the state of Overwhelm because life is just a big old mess of decisions and problems and unresolved issues which are so toweringly massive they stop making sense. My usual ability to sort and prioritize and manage information freezes up, and my brain skids off into the ditch.

pencil and ink wash drawing of WW 1 red cross van sliding backwards off a mountain road

Once I’m in Overwhelm, it’s unreasonable to try to reason my way out of it in my usual way. Each thought is blocked by half a dozen issues backed up against it.

I’ve got to simplify. Not just that, but I need to SUPER-simplify — break it down into binary questions — that is, questions with only one of two possible answers. It’s the only way I can start managing the pile.

(What follows is a technique used in several disciplines. I’m avoiding jargon and simply using the words I use in conversation.)

The roadmap out of Overwhelm

When I was rebuilding my credit, the first thing to do was to figure out what I really owed, and what someone else was supposed to pay. This is a good template for dealing with Overwhelm.

First, whose job is it, really?

When I get overwhelmed, it’s hard to tell what’s my responsibility and what’s really someone else’s. It feels like this:

white box with orange speckles throughout, with the words "my job" on the left and "someone else's job" on the right, with no barrier between them

All the jobs are kind of muddled around in the space and there are too many jobs and not enough space.

When I draw a mental barrier between the two, things suddenly start to clear up:

plain white box, with a line down the middle. "my job" in left part, "someone else's job" in right part.

Notice that, at this point, I don’t need to know who the “someone else” is; the first step is to be clear about whether it’s my job or not.

Managing my care?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

Ordering tests and prescribing meds?

my job slash someone else's job box, with someone else's job illuminated and my job darkened

Testing those meds on my system, tracking their benefits and drawbacks, and updating the prescriber?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

Keeping the dishes clean?

my job slash someone else's job box, with someone else's job illuminated and my job darkened

Keeping the outside steps de-iced?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

(It’s my one outdoor job, and my partner does everything that I can’t and a lot that I shouldn’t, so I bundle up and take care of the steps without a whimper.)

Second, is it something volunteers can do or is it a professional job?

This is an important distinction.

binary box, with "volunteer job" on left and "professional job" on right, with bar down middle dividing the two

When in doubt, upgrade.

Volunteers

Take care not to abuse the skills of your volunteers. You may know lawyers, counselors, accountants, and so forth, but that doesn’t make it right to ask for free professional services from them, except under unusual circumstances.

If those who help me out aren’t being paid (either by an agency/employer or by me), then they’re a volunteer, regardless of the skills they have.

I tread as lightly as I can on my volunteers. It’s an important long-term goal not to alienate them, but to keep them comfortable with me and happy to stick around.

Professionals

The corollary is, I have high standards for my professionals, and hold them to those standards with all the clarity-with-courtesy I can manage. I have no hesitation about firing someone who consistently fails to measure up.

I put a lot of legwork into choosing my doctors. Here’s an overview of the process and links I used a few years ago: How I find my doctors

It’s certainly worth the time and effort to find good people who can do justice to your life and your needs. The question is whether you can find the slack. I hope so.

Examples

Fix the heater?

binary box, volunteer/professional, with professional job illuminated and volunteer job darkened

Put us up for a night until it’s fixed?

binary box, volunteer/professional, volunteer job illuminated and professional job darkened

Give hugs, tea, and sympathy when I’m recently bereaved?

binary box, volunteer/professional, volunteer job illuminated and professional job darkened

Train me in how to get my brain to reprocess deep pain (and the staggering scope of loss associated with it) without short-circuiting?

binary box, volunteer/professional, with professional job illuminated and volunteer job darkened

This is definitely not for volunteers; too much knowledge about neuropsych and too much investment of time is required.

Professional level brain & mind care

For some things, talking to a friend, doing something strenuous, or meditating a lot, is enough to allow a person to heal heart and mind. Life itself is generally a good therapist.

Some things are too complex, too deep, or too dangerous for amateurs. Despite our longstanding social taboos, people with recurring trauma (like central pain or abusive relationships) or PTSD (like survivors of war or child abuse or those who’ve been through worker’s compensation or disability applications on top of a devastating condition) are right and smart to get highly-qualified care for resolving the damage that these things do to our minds and our brains. The damage is not imaginary, and sheer force of will is not a great tool for healing it.

Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst

It CAN be healed, even the worst of it. It does NOT require chewing over the past; in fact, that’s often avoided in modern trauma counseling, because that can do to the PTSD brain roughly what our recurring pain does to  CRPS brains.

Line drawing of brain, including medulla, sliced near the middle so the lacunae are visible.

Some techniques DO re-map and re-train the brain to make room for more stability, more healthiness, and move even a CRPS’d brain closer to a normal state.

Less pain! More joy! Less instability! More abilities 🙂

Some keywords for finding relevant mental health professionals: trauma-informed, PTSD, pain psychology. These are jargon terms that usually indicate the professional understands how these profound experiences affect our brains, and how that can be rewound or reworked to a better state.

Another thing you can do

It helps to vote for legislators who see the value in health care, including mental health care. Conservative estimates say that each $1 spent on care saves between $10 and $100 in downstream costs (ER visits, health costs, police activity, lost productivity, lost wages, family impact, etc.) Middle-of-the-road estimates place the savings much higher.

Something to think about, in times like these.

Find your legislators here and let them know what you think:

  • In the US, here’s where you find national, state, and local legislator info: www.usa.gov
  • Canadians, here is your national parliament contact info: http://www.parl.ca/

Please feel free to add contact info for elected officials in other countries in the comments below. It has become clear that voting is a health-care issue.

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