Case Story: Anna

In this section I present just a few of the clients who have used the strategies in this book to end their sense of being overwhelmed. You will see that their overwhelm shifts by shifting themselves – their patterns of LAB and their beliefs – rather than by changing the outside world. I share their stories in the hope that you will see that no matter your situation, you, too, can end your overwhelm now. The tools that supported each client in their shift are in bold text. You can find interviews and more stories on our website:


Anna is a single mom juggling a more-than-full-time job, two kids, a dog and a gerbil. She’s a senior project manager in a financial services technology firm. It’s a job she enjoys, but it often requires more than 40 hours per week. Her 11 year old son plays baseball, basketball and the tuba, all of which require transportation arrangements, equipment, supplies, and Anna’s attention. Her 13-year-old, when not snap-chatting with friends, is a Girl Scout and budding dancer. Although the kids are supposed to be responsible for the dog and the gerbil, overseeing their care usually falls to Anna. On top of her job, the kids, the pets and running the household, at the three-year mark from her divorce, Anna would like to start dating . . . but where she would squeeze in the time for that, she doesn’t know. Regular exercise, which she knows is important, well, that’s just going to have to wait.

Anna knows that getting to bed at a reasonable hour is one of the most supportive things she can do for herself, but it almost never happens. She often stays up late cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, paying her bills and her mother’s bills, answering emails, making the kids lunches for the next day, etc. Her life often feels like a treadmill.

On our coaching call, Anna tells me, “There’s always too much to do and I just can’t keep up. No matter how fast I go and how little sleep I get, there’s always more I should be doing.” She says that she feels exhausted and inadequate most of the time, and often wonders, “Is this it? Is this all there is to my life?”

Her daily life is a challenge, but the unexpected things that crop up overwhelm her most of all: a meeting at school that her son forgot to mention, her boss assigning a new rush project, unexpected medical results that require additional testing. She says that these surprises feel like a physical blow to her stomach. She starts to beat herself up that she should have somehow known or anticipated these events, and doesn’t see how she can now possibly fit this – whatever the “this” is — into her life as well.

To stop her overwhelm cycle, we first had to interrupt her reactionary pattern when the unexpected happened. When those unexpected, but seemingly inevitable, surprises arose, Anna jumped into the STORIES process. She recognized that punch-in-the-stomach feeling as one of the starting symptoms. She learned that a few deep breaths would help to relax that knot. Then, using the simple process of taking a step back to get perspective, Anna was able to avoided descending further into overwhelm. She learned to say to herself, “Here’s one of those surprises again, but I can handle it.” She anticipated her default reaction of “I’m not enough.” Instead of beating herself up and seeing herself as “inadequate,” she practiced seeing herself as resilient and capable (which was also part of engaging a new story for her).

She learned to next organize what seemed to be the chaos. Anna used her project management skills (the resource of her strengths) to create a system to better manage her appointments and tasks. This step gave her clarity about her most important obligations for each day. Taking the time to identify how important each task was, how urgent, how much time it would take, or who needed to be involved, reassured her. She also reminded herself that she didn’t always have to do it now, and she didn’t always have to do it herself.

Anna also realized that her patterns of language and attention were feeding her overwhelm (feeling that her entire schedule was upset and catastrophizing to a worst-case scenario). Instead, when a surprise occurred, she focused on what actually was being disrupted, then started thinking about the resources she would need to take care of it. Each time Anna interrupted her cycle of overwhelm she celebrated with a happy-dance; this seems silly, I know, but it was effective for her, maybe just because it was silly and a nice shift from her usual state. She learned to take the time to acknowledge how she had been successful at handling the surprise. That felt much better than beating herself up and left her in an empowered and resourceful state.

The biggest surprise to Anna was how different her life was when she could keep herself from going into overwhelm. She actually did start anticipating the surprises better because she wasn’t in that state of panic. She started prioritizing herself (instead of beating herself up). Part of that was remembering her resources: she found a wonderful new home for the gerbil; she worked out a reward system for the kids to care for the dog and do small household tasks instead of doing those things herself; and she found a gym near her work where she could conveniently weave stress-relieving exercise into her days.

It didn’t happen overnight, but with persistence and patience, Anna continued to shift how she approached her life. She sent me an email about six months later. Not only was her relationship with her kids more relaxed and playful, but she also told me about Daniel, the new guy she was dating. By feeling better about herself and creating some space in her life, she was enjoying life so much more. “I never would have believed that simply changing how I was thinking about things would make such a huge difference,” she wrote. “I don’t worry about surprises anymore because I feel confident that I can handle whatever comes up now.”

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