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?

10 Simple Ways to Manage Holiday Stress

Holiday Stress | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Holiday Stress | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

December, and the holidays, can be a tough month for many people.  There are so many expectations and ideals of what the holidays “should” look like.  Striving to meet these ideals can be incredibly stressful though.  Travel, over-scheduling, financial strains, family conflict and over-stimulation can create feelings of anxiety, stress and feeling overwhelmed.  Now is probably the time when you need to manage the stress the most, but when your resources are limited.  It is probably not the best time to start an intensive meditation practice or learn a new hobby.  Here are a few simple ways to manage holiday stress (you can start meditating in January!).

  1. Create realistic expectations about what the holidays will be like.  Having realistic expectations can protect us from feeling disappointed or frustrated by our situations.  Base your expectations on previous years.  If most years are chaotic and hurried, there is a good chance that this year will be like that again (unless we make conscious changes to alter the experience-more on that next!).   Many people feel disappointed when their holiday celebrations don’t turn out to be the picture perfect Norman Rockwell experience, even when they have zero evidence to support that fantasy.  Even if it’s uncomfortable, base your expectations on your previous experiences.
  2. Make changes if previous experiences have been stressful, even if those changes may not be accepted by everyone.  One of the most common stressors for my clients is establishing new traditions with their created families while maintaining the traditions with their family of origin.  Sometimes it’s impossible for the two to co-exist together, and difficult changes need to be made.  A few years ago my husband and I decided that it was too stressful to travel on Christmas day with young children.  While this decision changed the holiday experience for us and our extended family, it made things much more manageable.  You need to decide what the right balance for you and your family is.
  3. Take a deep breath when things start feeling overwhelming.  Make sure it’s a true deep breath.  Most of us have trained ourselves to be chest breathers and very rarely take truly deep breaths.  Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.  Take a deep breath.  If the hand on your chest moves, your breathing is too shallow.  The hand on your belly should move as your belly expands.  Watch babies and animals breathing – that’s what you’re striving for.
  4. Don't rely on caffeine to get through the holiday season.  I understand, this one is painful.  Caffeine can be fabulous.  It can perk you up, make long days bearable, and give you that boost that you need to face the shopping crowds.  However, it can also boost our heart rate, make us feel jittery and essentially mimic symptoms of anxiety.  If you’re already revved up by stress, probably not a good idea to caffeinate.
  5. Be in the present moment during the enjoyable moments.  Often we are on autopilot, especially when we feel that there is a lot to achieve, and we then miss out on the positive effects of a pleasurable moment.  During a holiday dinner, truly taste the food that you are eating.   Give a friend or family member that you may not see very often all of your attention and focus on the connection between the two of you.  Enjoy the quiet moments.
  6. Make time for exercise.  You don’t have to train for a marathon, become a competitive body builder or manage to turn yourself into a human pretzel, especially during a hectic time like the holidays.  Just move your body in a way that you enjoy, get the blood pumping, and spend some time doing something that is healthy for both your mind and body.
  7. Help someone.  Help an elderly person load groceries into their cars.  Drop off a home cooked meal to a new mom.  Turn the focus away from yourself and find a way to make someone else’s day a little better.  It doesn’t have to be a long term, highly invested commitment on your part, just a simple act that someone may appreciate.  During the holidays, there are usually lots of opportunities to help others.
  8. Go outside for a few minutes.  You don’t have to go on a 100 kilometre hike, just get out of your house or office.  Get some fresh air, eyeball some nature and just change up your scenery for a few minutes.
  9. Stretch.  Sitting for long periods of time is bad for our bodies and our minds.  Get up, stretch out and get the blood flowing.  This is particularly important if you are doing a lot of travelling and are trapped in a car/plane/train for long periods of time.
  10. Practice being grateful.  Experiencing gratitude has many benefits (see here for more information) and the holidays can be an ideal time to exercise our gratitude muscles.  Reflect on the last year; what are some of the highlights?  What progress did you make?  What parts of the holiday celebrations do you most enjoy and feel grateful to be able to participate in?

While is is likely that the holiday season will bring some stress, it is possible to manage the holiday stress and enjoy.

5 Reasons Why You’re Not Getting The Support That You Need

The benefits of social support are undeniable. We all need support during difficult times in our lives.  Research has shown that social support is related to positive emotional and physical health.  However, sometimes beneficial support can be difficult to find.  Sometimes people’s attempts at being supportive can make us feel worse.  What gets in the way of support that is actually, you know, supportive?

  1.  We are afraid of seeking support.  We may be fearful that others will judge us or not understand our struggles.  We may be fearful of rejection.  This fear can lead to missed opportunities for support.  There is a blood work lab here in London, Ontario that opens early every morning for women who are undergoing fertility treatments.  Every morning the lab’s waiting room is full of women who are waiting to get their blood drawn to determine their hormone levels, to learn how their treatment cycle is going, or to learn whether their treatment cycle was successful.  Most of these women likely have had many similar experiences and could probably relate to one another.  However, on most mornings, this waiting room is silent and most women even avoid making eye contact with one another.  We don’t want to intrude, invade anyone’s privacy, or may be too anxious ourselves to even start a conversation.  However, this fear can stand in the way of connecting with others who may truly understand what we are going through.
  1. We fall into the role of supporter, rather than supportee.  Sometimes it is more comfortable to simply listen and be there for other people.  If a friend begins to talk about her own struggles, it may feel wrong to turn the conversation to yourself.  You may have become known among your circle as an amazing listener, a calming force, someone who can help with anything.  These are wonderful qualities to have, but they can get in the way of receiving your own support.  Don’t shy away from voicing your own needs.  Those who have been on the receiving end of your support will likely be more than happy to be there for you.
  1. We try to downplay our own feelings and our own needs for support.  Sometimes, as a way of coping, we may minimize our own struggles and deny that we even need support.  The idea of seeking support may feel like we are admitting that we are having difficulties.  People may be stunned to know that you are struggling because you hide it so well.  However, your feelings are valid.  Acknowledge and validate the feelings that you are having.  It’s okay to be having them and it’s okay to need some help.
  1. We are getting the wrong type of support, but don’t speak up.  When I work with couples, there tends to be a familiar pattern of support gone wrong.  One member of the couple is the “fixer” and the other is the "venter."  The venter finds talking about their difficulties to be very beneficial.  However, when the fixers hears of a problem or struggle, they immediately go into problem solving mode.  The fixer hears the venting as a call to action.   However, the venter doesn’t want a fix, they just want to talk about it and feel supported.  This can create a feeling of disconnect.  The fixer is confused about why the venter is getting frustrated when all they want to do is help.  The venter is feeling unheard and misunderstood.  Both parties leave the interaction feeling like they were just speaking to each other in a foreign language.  It is critical to be clear about what we need from our support system, especially since our needs may change depending on the situation.
  1. We need more support or help than our support system is able to give.  There are situations which there is a very clear need for outside support.   Professional support, which can be found through therapy, is not a replacement for your own support system.  It is a complement to it.  Seeking professional support provides you with a time and a place that it all about you and your needs.  This can be very different than accessing your friends and family as supports, as they are often personally impacted by your struggles.  Having an unbiased perspective can be incredibly helpful in coping with difficulties.

Having support can make us feel less isolated, less distressed and more connected to those in our lives.  The feeling that someone has listened, understood and cared about us can make even the most bleak situations feel that much more tolerable.

Busy, busy, busy

A common problem that individuals find themselves struggling with is feeling too busy, too overwhelmed, being stretched too thin.  It seems that once you check one item off the to-do list, five additional items seem to appear out of nowhere!  Between the demands of home, work, school, family, friends, children, activities, it may appear that there is no time to meet your own needs (or actually figure out what your own needs are!)  This can lead to feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and stress. While there are absolutely things that must be done, sometimes we may have a tendency to pile on obligations for ourselves.  This can be due to unrealistic expectations (whether priorities are self-imposed, or from people depending on us), distracting ourselves from other issues or we may feel guilty if we are not busy.  However, taking downtime for ourselves is critical for our well-being.  It can help hold at bay the feeling of being burnt out, it allows accumulated stress to decrease and it can make us more content.  Relaxing and taking a break has its virtues.

Here is a challenge for you.  Take ten minutes today to do something just for you, something that you enjoy, something that makes you feel good.  How did that feel?