Mental Health & Recovery

What Coloring Taught Me About Being Overwhelmed

Life is overwhelming. My to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer. Eventually it feels like I’m being smothered and crushed by all the things that I need to do. I know I’m not the only one, right?

Seriously, I know I’m not the only one. You folks out there who pretend you can manage it all with no problems or stress have to be lying. Adults clean up their lives the same way kids clean their rooms. We get overwhelmed with the mess so we shove all our stuff under the bed and into the closet so it looks neat to everyone else.

Or at least, that’s what I did. And still do. When my to-do list gets too long, I just want to hide from it and not even get started.

IMG_3821In college I coined this type of paralyzing anxiety “Syllabus Shock” because that’s the first time I understood what was happening. At the beginning of every semester, I would read the syllabus and see all the books, papers, and projects that would be assigned. And I freaked out! Every. Single. Time. (I know, I know, no one actually reads the syllabus, except me apparently.)

During the first few weeks of all eight semesters I would let Syllabus Shock completely overwhelm me. I thought there was no way I could get all these assignments done and believed I would be swamped with work the entire semester. With the exception of one semester, (Dear Fall of senior year: I wish I couldn’t remember you…) my fears were never realized. Syllabus Shock passed and I would do one assignment at a time. Before I knew it, I had completed all the required work for the semester.

You would think I might’ve learned something about Syllabus Shock after eight semesters, but unfortunately I still have this same paralyzing and distressing anxiety regarding my adult to-do list. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I simply don’t do anything at all.  Shoving my shit under the bed might’ve passed mom’s inspection, but the mess was still there and it doesn’t work any better as an adult.

IMG_3818In fact, in some ways I struggle with Syllabus Shock more than I did in college. I have a lot more on my plate as an adult. Plus, I deal with Major Depression, which sometimes makes it hard for me to get anything done.

Yes, like most people, I experience Syllabus Shock from my many chores, plans, bills, and writing assignments. But when my depression and anxiety has flared up, I also face Syllabus Shock to do … well … almost anything. Cleaning my bathroom, making myself lunch and dinner, or simply getting out of bed and putting on clothes feels extremely overwhelming, as though they’re insurmountable tasks.

While in treatment for depression I’ve acquired a new hobby: coloring. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I love it because I once thought it was the dumbest new trend of 2016, but once I tried it, I knew I would be coloring more often.

IMG_3802 (2)I first started coloring during a period of time when I was extremely emotionally distressed and overwhelmed by literally everything. In fact, I was even overwhelmed by the coloring page itself (pictured right). I didn’t know where to start. There were so many flowers and they all ran together and it was too much and I was never going to be able to finish it!

No surprise, I was overwhelmed. However, my friends were coloring, so I too picked up a colored pencil and began. About halfway through coloring the page, I realized how much I had accomplished.

“Look!” I declared in excitement. “I’m getting there! I just have to color one fucking flower at a time!” (Excuse my language, I was in bad shape at the time.)

IMG_3808 (2)And then I suddenly made the connection to my life. “One fucking flower at a time.” That’s it. One at a time. I thought I had made that connection back in college, when I worked on one homework assignment at at time, but I hadn’t fully understood it.

Though my practical plan had been correct in college, my mindset still wasn’t focused. It’s not enough to just DO one thing at a time. Even while doing one task, my mind was still racing ahead to the next paper, the next shift of work, and the next project after that. I was only DOING one thing, but I was THINKING about twenty things at once.

Coloring was different. I didn’t think about the next flower I would color or try to plan the colors for the entire page. Instead I focused on one flower at a time, and nothing else. Not what I was going to have for dinner. Not which color I was going to use next. Not whether my pencil was sharp enough. I just focused entirely on the flower I was coloring.

IMG_3814And it worked!  I found myself in a place of peace and calm when I was only focused on the flower I was currently coloring instead of the many flowers I hadn’t yet colored.

Through coloring I finally found the answer to Syllabus Shock. One thing at a time. And I don’t mean starting a task while still thinking about the twenty other items further down my to-do list. No, I mean being fully focused on that one task. When we’re being mindful to the task at hand with body and mind, the Syllabus Shock fades. Without that paralyzing anxiety, we are able to accomplish more than we thought possible.

Overwhelmed? Try applying the lesson I learned from coloring …  focus on one freaking flower at a time. It’s worth a shot and I think you’ll be surprised at how helpful it might be.

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