Decluttering the Hamsters in My Brain: How to Calm the Overwhelmed Mind

Calming the Overwhelmed Mind | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Calming the Overwhelmed Mind | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

I recently a took a week away from my counselling practice in London, Ontario to have some down time, spend time with my family and re-energize.  I didn’t have a ton of plans other than a few days away. Minimal plans, low stress; my kind of holiday.

During my first day off, I stumbled across the new trend in decluttering, the KonMari method. I immediately downloaded the book to my Kindle and fell in love. The basic principle of this method is to only keep the things that “spark joy”, and discarding all of the rest. Once you are left with only the things that you truly love, everything gets its own spot, which allows you to maintain a tidy space.

According to the method, you begin with categories of items rather than locations. The first category was clothes. I pulled out all of the clothing that I owned and ruthlessly started to purge. I only kept the items that truly sparked joy and got rid of 2 huge garbage bags of clothing that only sparked mediocrity.

I loved this process. When I look into my closet, it makes me happy. Everything has a spot, everything is neatly hung up or folded and I have actually been able to maintain the tidiness.

As I decluttered my physical home, I also realized that I needed to do some mental decluttering. My brain can be an overwhelming place. There is a lot going on in there at any given moment; I may be thinking of my clinical work, blog posts that I want to write, the books that I want to read, the plans that I have for the next week, what I’m going to pack my kids for lunch, what I want life to look like 5 years from now.

Essentially my brain is rows and rows of hamsters.

Hamsters on treadmills.

All going at various speeds.

Occasionally a few of the hamsters crank up their treadmills way too fast and all of a sudden they start flying off their treadmills. My brain becomes a hamster explosion.

This is overwhelming.

I realized that I was dealing with a hamster infestation in my brain. I needed to declutter ASAP.

I first needed to identify all of the hamsters. Seriously, there are probably hundreds of them. There were work related ones, family related ones, money related ones, body image related ones, self-worth related ones.

Hamster infestation.

I soon realized that there was no way to identify every single hamster. There were just too many. However, I could start to prioritize which hamsters should be running their little tails off and which needed to chill for the moment, or be escorted off the premises.

I started doing a categorization of my hamsters. There were ones that absolutely needed to keep running. There were things that do need attention now.

However, there were hamsters that were going full force that could be slowed down. Yes, I needed to write a new blog post but I didn’t need to be thinking of it constantly. I plugged in the treadmill for that hamster now, when I actually sat down to write this post.

There were also hamsters that needed to be escorted out of my brain for good. So often we think about other people and how we can change them or their behaviour. These hamsters needed to go.

There was the “you’re not good enough, you totally suck!” hamsters. They also needed to be escorted out. I have no doubt that they will eventually set up their treadmills at some point again, and will need to be yet again shown the door.

There were also a few hamsters that needed to be put on their treadmills. They wanted to stay on the couch, eating Doritos and binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. My self-care hamsters were being lazy. They are the ones who say “you don’t have time to take of yourself! You don’t need self-care.”

These are some of the trickiest hamsters to deal with. While I pride myself on encouraging others of the importance of self-care, it can be hard for me to do so as well. I need to plunk those hamsters on their treadmills and crank up the speed. It is important.

Right now my brain feels calmer. Some hamsters are gone. Some hamsters are jogging at a nice light jog. Others are benched for the time being.

However, I have no doubt that I will have to declutter again. While I have high hopes that my closets will remain a calm and serene space filled with items that spark joy, my mind is bound to get cluttered again. The evicted hamsters will try to get back in. The lazy hamsters will make their way back to the couch. Future focused hamsters will start sprinting.

I will need to declutter.

How are the hamsters in your brain?

Reflections of a Mud Woman: What is Self-Care?

Self-care | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Self-care | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

“So, does this count as self-care?”

I posed this question to two friends this weekend; we were completely covered in mud, we were about halfway through a 9 km, 13 obstacle challenge and it was about a bazillion degrees out (it seemed like a good idea when I signed up for it back in January.)

Apparently it did count. My (clearly more chipper and positive) friend outlined the reasons it totally counted; we were doing something that was physically healthy, we were spending time together and doing something that was solely for us. 

Once I completed the course, got the mud out of places that mud should never be, I reflected more about this experience and how I couldn’t help but agree that it totally did count as self-care

Sometimes it can be tricky to determine what self-care actually is. Sure we hear about it all the time. We know (in theory) that it’s important.  We know that we should be doing it and we also know that we aren’t doing enough of it.


So what exactly is self-care?

•    Self-care can be *anything* that has a positive impact on you, both in the short-term and long-term (we’ll get back to things that seem like self-care but actually aren’t). I call it finding your moments of bliss; those moments when you can connect to and say “ahh, this feels pretty good right now.”

•    Self-care is not things that feel good in the moment, but that come with an emotional hangover. You may have experienced this when that second piece of cake totally felt like self-care in the moment (“it was so tasty!”) but within a few minutes you are beating yourself up for having too much sugar, your stomach hurts and now you feel even worse. That’s not to say that good food can’t be a part of self-care (in my world, brie is totally self-care), but also be aware of any negative impacts it may have on you afterwards.

•    Self-care can be activities that we do for our physical body; going on walks, taking an exercise class, working out at the gym. Exercise can be a huge mood booster, but it needs to be something that you actually enjoy. Dragging yourself to the gym 5 times a week and absolutely hating every minute may be “healthy” but probably isn’t refueling you. Pick something that you enjoy.

•    Self-care can be activities that involve other people; going out for coffee with friends, hanging out with your partner, having a tickle fight with your kids. However, notice when being around other people is actually draining. Most of us need alone time. Honour your needs or spending time with others will feel less like self-care, and more like an obligation.

•    Self-care can be activities that engage our minds; reading, writing, art projects. Again though (are you noticing a trend here?), it actually needs to be something that you enjoy. Just because colouring is all the rage, that doesn't mean it's the right fit for you. Find something that works for you. If you need to read the equivalent of candy floss for the brain, go for it!

Regardless of your definition of self-care, the most important part is that you're doing it on a regular and consistent basis! 


How Full is Your Coping Tank? Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Ready for the Long Haul?

Self-care | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Self-care | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

You know those days where everything feels overwhelming? You can’t find anything to wear and you want to cry. You go to make breakfast, there’s no bread and it feels like the end of the world. You spill coffee on the one shirt that isn’t wrinkled, and you’re heading into nervous breakdown territory.

And then there are the days where you are feeling amazing! Traffic snarl? No worries, you’ll just turn up the music and enjoy the alone time. Big stressor at work? You got this and save the day! Friend comes to you with all of her stressors. You are as solid as a rock.

What gives? How is it that you can manage stressors so well in some moments, and other times you feel that you can barely keep it together?

The Coping Tank

How you respond to stressors is largely influenced by the level of reserves in your coping tank. You tap into your reserves when there is a need for stress management. You also need to refuel your tank. You do not have an infinite reserve of coping fuel.  You have to make conscious choices that will help you refuel.

What happens when your coping tank is running low? You start having a really hard time when stressors happen. You may feel exhausted all the time. You may feel tearful or on edge. It feels like there is nothing left for you at the end of the day.

What happens when you are running on fumes? You find it hard to meet other people’s needs.  Everything feels like it is a huge effort. Your mood is volatile.  You may start experiencing physical symptoms like hair loss, headaches, skin conditions flare up.  You may start struggling with feelings of depression or anxiety. Things feel so hard.  

Eventually you may even run out of fumes and all you’re left with is an old, rusted out tank. This is bad.

How to refuel your coping tank?

Self-care, self-care, self-care (and some more self-care for good measure). Easy, right?

Not so much.  There are many obstacles to self-care. However, it is critical. It is no longer optional. So, here are a few ways to refill that tank so you don’t end up sputtering at the side of the road one day.

·         Sleep. This one of the most basic, yet most overlooked, building blocks to self-care. If sleep sucks, everything sucks.  Chronic difficulties with sleep drain you physically and emotionally. When you are tired, everything feels so much worse. Go to bed at the same time every day. Get up at the same time every day. Develop a bedtime routine to wind down (they’re not just for toddlers!).

·         Eat properly. You can decide what eating properly means to you, but make sure you are regularly fuelled with good nutrition. I know that I easily fall victim to feeling “hangry”, and I can’t even cope with a hangnail if I’m not properly fed. Your physical body needs to be nourished so that you can functional optimally.

·         Be careful if you’re using food or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Sometimes a nice meal, a sweet treat or the occasional glass of wine can be a part of your self-care regimen. However, if you feel  guilt or shame afterwards, it can drain the tank rather than add to it

·         Self-care doesn’t have to be complicated. Go outside for a few minutes. Belt out a favorite song. Find something that feels good to you.

·         Notice when your tank is getting low. Are you more irritable? Do you feel exhausted? Do minor stressors feel incredibly overwhelming? Know your signs early on and fill up that tank!

In my London, Ontario counselling practice I regularly work with women who are running on fumes. I talk to friends and they are running on fumes. I talk to other professionals in all sorts of industries and they are seeing clients who are running on fumes.  This is a common and serious problem! We need to start addressing our general lack of self-care and start letting go of the guilt that is often associated with taking time for ourselves. Please share this post and let’s start filling up our tanks!