How to Remain Happy When Feeling Overwhelmed by Life

Approach each moment one at a time

Posted Dec 22, 2014

A few years ago I was on vacation in Orlando, Florida. We were having a very nice time but at about 3 o’clock in the morning, I woke up with a start. Over the past three or four years my accountant has been encouraging me to incorporate my business; there are a lot of steps involved in doing this so I hadn’t done it yet. I decided that this year I was definitely going to incorporate, and as I said, there are a lot of steps to getting this done. Prior to going on vacation I began to get part of it done; however, there were still a lot of steps I had left to do. What happened to me at 3am in Orlando was that my mind decided to create a story. In a brief instance, while I was dreaming, I saw everything that I needed to do and everything that could go wrong and my mind just created this fabulous story of woe and trepidation and when I woke up I realized almost immediately what my mind had done. It was very interesting to me; because up to that point I had just been plugging away at the different aspects of incorporating my business, or at least many of them. But my mind just made up this story and it was very fascinating because it caused me great stress. Even if it was for only a minute or two, it woke me up so I was wide awake. What amazed me was that it was what my mind had created that had so easily awakened me. The odd part to me was that I really hadn’t been struggling with incorporating my business up to that point.   I was just plugging away at it one instance at a time. However, what my mind did was create this incredible tale of anxiety and fear.

What I realized was that this is how many people live. They create stories about a lot of things that are happening; but what’s causing them a lot of stress and worry isn’t really so much what they’re dealing with but instead what their minds are creating.

I really wasn't not struggling with my own incorporation. It really doesn’t bother me or overwhelm me at all; but I realized what my mind had done by being able to create a story and then embellish it. This embellishment made it very frightening, very overwhelming - so much so that it woke me out of my sleep. When my mind decided to look at the whole picture and all that could possibly go wrong, it decided to create such a story that it woke me at 3 o’clock in the morning so that I was wide awake.

Luckily, I was able to fall back to sleep fairly quickly but I wanted to remember this event because I think in life many people create stories or stress where they don’t have to. We will explore ways that, when we are feeling overwhelmed by life, we can reduce that feeling and make life work well for us.

Now my story, like your story, was very real. Every aspect of what my mind had created had some truth to it; there are many aspects of things I need to do to incorporate, there are things that can go wrong, and it’s a bit overwhelming. However, it doesn’t overwhelm me because I just continued to work on it and it then went well. But the mind had created possible scenarios and if I focused on those possible scenarios or on all that needed to be done in a single instance it would be overwhelming. Let me use a physical analogy as an example.

My background is Dutch. (My mother was 100% Dutch and my father was 25% Dutch.) I have been to the Netherlands to enjoy all the waterways that they have there. There are probably some of the world’s best experts in Holland who have created dikes and dams. In order for a dam to work effectively, what it has to do is let the water out little bit by little bit, and then what happens is everything goes smoothly. But could you imagine if all of the water was let out all at once or if the dam broke? Could you imagine all the damage that it would cause? That’s why the water is always regulated and let out slowly, so that it doesn’t cause any damage to anyone or anything.

Our minds are much like a dam. If we watch our minds and we are attentive to them; if we use them for what they are made to be used for, to help keep us safe, to help keep us alive, to experience different sensations in life, then they work pretty well. But, what can happen is that our minds can break like that dam and when they break they really do cause a lot of havoc. They focus on everything all at once and it’s extremely overwhelming, creating anxiety and stress for us. For me, this stress woke me up at 3 o’clock in the morning. For others, they may be living with stress and anxiety for days, weeks, months, even years, and it can really wreak havoc on our bodies.

So what can we do about this stress our minds create? Here’s an example. Let’s say we’ve been diagnosed with cancer. The truth is that many of us are going to be diagnosed someday with cancer; it’s one of the leading causes of death and many people as they go through life get both malign and benign forms of cancer. Some of these cancers are very treatable, while some of them are not. However, when we get that diagnosis what do we do? Do we let our minds play havoc, thinking about all of the negative possibilities and how overwhelming it’s going to be and how painful, how unfair, and go on and on about it? Or, because we choose to be happy, because we choose to have a good life, do we say ‘Okay what can I do? I need to set up appointments with other doctors. I need to determine what choices and treatments I have available to me; both alternative and traditional. I will explore these options one day at a time, one moment at a time and then make decisions based upon them all.’ This is how we live successfully in life when we are overwhelmed. We take things one moment at a time, one event at a time and we do that every time, doing it well, one event at a time and slowly then we will enjoy our journey in life.

Our minds truly can only be on one thing at a time. If we focus on the beautiful things around us we will thrive. If we start focusing on the negative things around us then we are going to suffer and feel overwhelmed. When we focus on what needs to be done right now and that’s it, guess what happens? What happens is that we feel calm, we become peaceful and this is one of the reasons why I am such a promoter of meditation. I recommend meditation to everyone I know.  This is why I have written books on it and provide podcasts on it and encourage people to meditate so much; because meditation helps us to be in the present moment and really learn to live one moment at a time.

So when we get hit with something like the loss of a job, the death of a family member, our own potential death through a disease like cancer, the best way to handle it is one moment at a time, one thing at a time and doing that one thing well before moving on to the next thing. Yes, our minds are great at creating stories but these stories cause us suffering. If we don’t want to suffer, if we want to truly live a happy life, then what we need to do is focus on one thing at a time. When we do this, no matter how overwhelming life can be, it will actually go quite well for us. We can even be happy with cancer. We can even be happy when we lose our job. It may not be happiness all the time, but we can have many, if not most, moments of our life when we enjoy it and embrace it one moment at a time. We can do this by simply just being in the present moment. If we feel overwhelmed by too many things to do, most of the time we can’t do them all; most of the time the things that overwhelm us are something we can deal with in the future. What we do is ask ourselves, “Can I do anything about this right now?” If the answer is ‘no’ then get back into living in the moment, in the here and now; that’s the way we should face life when we are overwhelmed. Our minds trick us by saying, “We’ve got to find some solution… I’m going to give it to you if you just keep thinking about this, looking at the whole picture and every aspect that can go wrong and then we’ll find that perfect solution and all will be well”. However, this doesn’t work very often. It may work one out of a million times, but for the most part it is just going to cause us tons of stress and anxiety.

Instead, we can do something else. When we are faced with something overwhelming we can say, "Do I want to be overwhelmed or do I want to be happy? If I want to be happy then I have to live in the here and now. I can deal with things as I need to, and I will; but mostly I’m going to just live in the here and now because I have a choice. I can be happy or I can let my mind overwhelm me with the story it creates.” However, remember that it is a choice. Let’s choose happiness. It’s a very simple approach to being happy; just be here, now, and focus on what needs to be done right now. Enjoy the journey of life and perhaps you will find, as I have found thousands of times, that when we live life this way life goes well. Life goes very well and things just flow.

So may I encourage everyone to just live in the present moment and when these overwhelming events occur let’s just take them one moment at a time. Mostly, choose to be happy by living in the now and being present with what is.