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Vanquish Emotional Overwhelm to Increase Productivity

Flickr Creative Commons: in lovely memory

My older daughter is six months shy of being a legal adult. The approach of this milestone has been fraught with anxiety, so I anticipated a rough night before she embarked on a new semester at the local community college. She’s taking an extra class this time. She has a part-time job. She worries about keeping up with it all. What I did not expect was for her to lament that she saw nothing to look forward to in the years to come. Community college will only lead to a regular college, which she is lukewarm about attending. College will only lead to a job she hates.

“What’s the point in any of it?” she asked. “Every adult I know is miserable.”

The weight of her negativity made remaining in her presence physically uncomfortable for this empath, but I couldn’t allow that comment to slide unchallenged. True, her father comes home shell-shocked from work most nights, but he isn’t all adults.

When I balked that I’m not miserable, she bestowed that special expression teenagers reserve for parental observations that conflict with their worldview. “Well, you’re not happy.”

I hadn’t given much thought to the idea of happiness lately, having spent the last four years as an involuntary sponge, absorbing the stress of one family member after another. I’d wring myself out only to fall into another puddle. I self-medicated with almost daily mocha lattes I no longer tasted, let alone savored. On particularly stressful days, I’d add a muffin, too.

I now own fat clothes.

She was right. I wasn’t happy, but what she had not lived long enough to understand is that happiness isn’t something that simply happens. It must be chosen. Every day we get to choose.

She had thrown down a challenge to prove her wrong, to show her another way. This was a wake-up call.

I’m convinced that much of what we call “writer’s block” is a consequence of emotional overwhelm. We are wired to put ourselves into the shoes of others, to share and, let’s be honest, sometimes to exploit their struggles by weaving them into a story. Easy prey to the perils of empathy, we become ensnared in that cycle of absorb/wring out/absorb and forget to allow ourselves to dry off in the sun. We forget to take care of ourselves. We forget to do the things that help us recharge, to pursue joy. Under these circumstances, when we have nothing left to give, is it any wonder our work can suffer, or even stall? 

If you recognize yourself in this description, the first step to recovery is to recognize that escape from this rut requires your active participation. Yes, this should be obvious, but change is hard work and Instagram is only a finger-tap away.

The second step is to assess all stressors in your life. There will be ones you can’t change: a spouse’s poor health or overly demanding job, a child’s medical condition, an elderly relative’s need of additional help, unexpected car repairs. Set these aside for now.

Pick one stressor over which you have some control. Politely decline the next invitation from that friend who always brings you down. Soothe the sting of rejection by sending out more queries or starting a new project – preferably both. Plan a date with your spouse if communication has broken down. Take up another mom’s offer to pick your kid up after school.

Do little things that boost your mood. If music energizes you, don’t drive or do chores in silence. Enjoy painting? Take an hour and pick up a brush. Want a tattoo or a purple streak in your hair? Just do it.

Consider supplements. Check with your doctor to see if you have an easily reversible deficiency. Certain herbs are natural anti-depressants. CBD oil has done wonders to increase my focus, calm anxiety, and relieve nagging aches and pains. I’ve tried several, but by far the best/most easily absorb-able one is from Lion Cura [1].

Flood your body with endorphins. Commit to some form of daily exercise. This is a tough one for many, myself included. I’ve learned from past failures that structure and accountability is essential for me; I now pay someone to push me to the breaking point every week.

Reward progress, but not in ways that encourage old habits. For example, I’ve promised myself that once I reach certain fitness goals – a challenging but not impossible task – I will reward myself not with sweets, but instead with Bluetooth ear buds to make future workouts less cumbersome.

Do something new. Bonus points if it is something outside your comfort zone. Double bonus points if this involves writing.

Speaking of writing, for the first time in over a year I am excited to sit at the keyboard again.

Over to you. What things do you do to resist becoming an empathic sponge? In which ways do you choose happiness? Have these things helped you become a more enthusiastic and productive writer?

About Kim Bullock [2]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [3], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.