Go from full throttle to full stop in three easy steps

How to slow your racing thoughts to find calm so you can move on

You’ve taken on a project at work that has a major deliverable due tomorrow and you know you’ll need to put in some extra hours to make it happen. Your eldest has soccer practice, your youngest has dance lessons and some out-of-town relatives just called to say they’ll be staying the night. Oh, and by the way, the house is a disaster.


This is your brain on overwhelm. Photo by Kelly used with permission.

There it is. The overwhelm.

How can you possibly get everything done? You have to go, go, go—now!—to have even the remotest chance at getting everything done. Your mind whirls faster and faster. It’s going a mile a minute but it’s like the rest of you has screeched to a stop.

Normally, you would go for a walk but today you don’t have time.

So how can you get out of this overwhelm and panic?

There are three easy steps that you can do anywhere and anytime to apply the brakes on those racing thoughts and find your calm.

Step 1: Get present

When we’re in fight or flight mode—because that’s where we are when we’re in overwhelm—we don’t think clearly. We’re so focused on our worries and all the things we need to do that we’re not present. We’re in a thought loop that gets us even more stressed out. The stress activates our more primitive area of the brain, the hypothalamus, to keep us ready to respond at the slightest sign of danger. It’s driving the train, not our more rational cerebral cortex.

To stop those ineffective wheels from spinning, we need to get into the present by noticing things around us. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What colour are the walls?
  • What sounds can you identify?
  • Notice how the chair feels as you sit in it.
  • What do your shoes feel like on your feet?

Step 2: Breathe

Getting present helped us to turn on our parasympathetic system, the system that helps to calm us down after a stressful situation. By becoming present, our heart rate and breathing will have started to slow already. Taking some intentionally slow, deep breaths will help us to become even calmer and to get out and stay out of fight or flight mode.

Take a moment to breath in and out in slow, deep breaths:

  • Breathe in for three seconds.
  • Out for four.
  • Repeat two more times.

Step 3: Move forward

Pick one teeny, tiny thing you know you need to do and do it. Not all of the things you know you need to do. Just the very first step of one of the things you need to do.

For example, don’t make it a goal to submit your report. Instead, think of the very next step you need to do that will lead to you submitting the report later on. Something simpler would be to write the first draft. Something even simpler than that would be to write a sentence. It doesn’t need to be the first sentence. Any old sentence will do. Then write another sentence and another until you have something that looks like it could be a draft.

And that’s it. Simple yet effective technique to help calm those racing thoughts so you can focus and get your stuff done!

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