Overcoming Overwhelm: Ch…ch…ch…changes. It’s YOUR choice.

It can be challenging to do all the things we feel we should be doing and changing to create better health, greater resilience, and peace of mind. The reality is that it’s impossible to do them all. So what can you do? In my book Overcoming Overwhelm:Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out I go through a process with my readers to get clear about what is most important so it becomes easier to figure out not only exactly what stresses are impeding you from living the life you want to live, but also which things you can, and will address to get there.

The first, and perhaps most important step to figuring this out is to be clear that every stress in your life will fit into one of three categories: things you can’t change, things you can change, and things you choose not to change.

Things You Can’t Change

There are always things in life that are out going to be out of your control. People disappoint you. Companies undergo mass layoffs. Your car gets sideswiped. Termites get at the foundation of your house. Your country elects officials that you are ideologically opposed to. The list goes on and on and on. When you’re faced with these events and situations, it’s easy to get down or feel overwhelmed.

Ultimately, though, if we let ourselves get anxious, down, or immobilized because of things we truly can’t change, we are setting ourselves up for a long and difficult haul. And there is another option: acceptance. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy about injustice or difficult circumstances, or that you should stop fighting for what’s important to you, but it does mean choosing not to let it undo you.

Things You Can Change

The number of stresses in your life that you do have control over—things you can change, if you choose to—dwarfs the number of stresses that you don’t. In step 3, you will be identifying many things in your life that you could change in order to give yourself more time, space, and energy. You may or may not change them all—or certainly not all at once—but I want you to know that it is well within your power to make easy, impactful shifts in your life. The less you feel like a victim of stress and circumstance, and the more you exercise choice in your own life, the less overwhelmed you’ll be.

Things You Choose Not to Change

Just because you can change things doesn’t mean you will choose to change them, or that choosing to change them is even the best option. You could move to get away from the noisy neighbors, but that would mean taking your child out of a school that is a great fit. You could cancel cable and get a gym membership, but watching football is how your family connects after a long, busy week. Life is complicated. We have responsibilities and commitments. We have many things we want to do.

Given that, I want you to acknowledge that there are some things you know you should do but aren’t up for doing right now. If you acknowledge that you are choosing not to change something—be it more significant (a relationship or a job) or less significant (staying away from coffee or not using plastic water bottles)—you can stop judging yourself and get on with the things that you are willing to do. This decision puts control firmly back in your own hands and reduces stress you add to your life by worrying about all the things you’re not doing or why you can’t surmount the limitations of time, space, and gravity.

An example 

At thirty-six, Melissa came to my office after a disheartening experience with her primary care doctor. She had gone to see him for knee pain the week before and after taking her vital signs and putting her on the scale, instead of giving her practical help for her pain, he spent about fifteen minutes shaming her for her weight. He ignored the fact that she had hurt her knee dead lifting. He just focused on her weight, telling her that she needed to lose seventy pounds as quickly as possible, as this was the cause of her problem. He never even touched her knee.

She told me that over the last ten years she had been on a merry-go-round of dieting, losing weight, getting off track, and gaining the weight back again. She said, “I’m fat, and it’s not healthy. I’m ready to lose weight.”

I looked through her intake forms; I asked her a slew of questions; I reviewed her lab test results from the last three years. She had no health issues other than some fatigue and knee pain—and I felt confident neither of those issues was related to her weight.

I looked her in the eye and said, “You’re not fat; you have fat. And you’re perfectly healthy.” She burst into tears.

At that point I suggested that she put her weight in the “choose not to change” category and focus instead on eating more healthfully to improve her energy and decrease her inflammation. We treated her knee with anti-inflammatory herbs and acupuncture. After a few months, she felt great.

You might expect me to add, “and she lost thirty pounds just from making the changes to her diet!” But she didn’t—and that’s just fine. To truly be healthy, she didn’t need to lose weight; she needed to offload her futile struggle with dieting and her feelings of shame and powerlessness. She remains healthy, eating well and exercising to this day.

In sum

YOU are in control of your choices. That doesn’t mean that shitty things won’t happen or you won’t be a victim of circumstance but you get to decide how you will respond to those things. So feel those feelings, be honest with yourself, and commit to dealing with whatever it is that is keeping you from getting to the other side.

Yours in Health,

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